Cruise Ships Are Allowed to Sail Again… Without Passengers

  • On a list of pointless exercises, we’d rank this one towards the top.

We could start this story by saying that the travel industry has hit hard times since the COVID-19 pandemic started. But what’s the point? You know that already.

In case you don’t, well, we won’t speculate what kind of a rock you’ve been living under. But just from reading Oddee, you should at least know that airlines aren’t doing so great.

As a result, flight firms have come up with some imaginative solutions to scrape by. Some are offering flights to nowhere (that sold out in record time) or converting their airplanes into restaurants.

But it’s not just airlines that are struggling. Cruise lines are another group of travel companies that are in danger of sinking, and fast.

In the U.S., for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put orders in place that keep cruise ships anchored at bay. And for a good reason.

Cruise ships are an excellent environment for the coronavirus to spread. Hundreds of people trapped in close quarters with each other for days or even weeks on end… Really, they’re a viral paradise.

But now, the CDC has had a change of heart. Since October 31, the agency has finally allowed cruisers to weigh anchor and set sail.

There’s just one catch. No passengers are allowed onboard.

Call the cruisers Flying Dutchmen, because that’s a literal ghost ship.

See this? This is what you won’t be getting.

Easy Does It

So what’s the point of sending the ships out to sea without anyone but the crew? According to the CDC, it’s all part of a “phased approach for the safe and responsible resumption of passenger cruises”.

Basically, it’s a test to see how cruise companies could start sailing again with COVID-19 precautions in place. CDC says that during the initial phase, cruise ship operators need to figure out how they will protect their crews from infection.

Among the things they need to resolve are testing, quarantine, and isolation measures. Additionally, the firms need to come up with a way for the crew to carry out their duties while maintaining social distancing.

“This framework provides a pathway to resume safe and responsible sailing,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield.

“It will mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and prevent passengers and crew from seeding outbreaks at ports and in the communities where they live.”

Really, the approach CDC is taking makes sense. You can’t really expect cruise operators to keep their passengers virus-free if they don’t first know how to do that with just their crew.

Should the cruise companies pass this test, they will move on to the second phase two of the new plan. That means that they will start running what the CDC calls “mock voyages”.

A mock cruise would involve a group of volunteers pretending to passengers. The intent is to test the operator’s ability to keep them healthy, the ship’s compliance with regulations, and whether everyone will come back home safe and sound.

In a nutshell, they’ll be asking people to take a cruise vacation. Sounds like a perfect job if not for, you know… The chance of bringing back the ‘Rona as a souvenir.

A Hospital on the Sea…

While their ships have been stuck at port, some cruise companies tried to come up with alternative uses for them. Among those was what on the surface sounds like a great idea.

Carnival Corp., one of the leading leisure travel companies that operates several cruise lines, wanted to turn its ships into temporary hospitals. With hospital space in short supply, the company offered to house patients on its empty ships.

“If needed, cruise ships are capable of being quickly provisioned to serve as hospitals with up to 1,000 hospital rooms that can treat patients suffering from less critical, non-COVID-19 conditions,” Carnival said in a press release in March.

“These temporary cruise ship hospital rooms can be quickly converted to install and connect remote patient monitoring devices over the ship’s high-speed network,” they added.

The ship-based hospital rooms would all have a toilet and private balconies for patients to get a breath of fresh air while maintaining social distancing. Carnival also suggested setting up intensive care units in its ships’ medical bays.

The plan would also provide jobs for ship crews, since the hospital would need cooks and cleaners. Someone would also have to look after the ship’s functions, so engineers and captains could also keep working.

Really, that’s an amazing plan! Right?

…Is Actually a Terrible Idea

The cruiser hospital sounds good on paper. Healthcare officials are less than thrilled about the idea, though. Remember that part earlier about ships being viral paradises?

Dr. Robert Norton, a professor of public health at Auburn University and member of several COVID-19 task forces, told People Magazine that a ship hospital would likely just end up spreading the virus further.

“The individual state rooms in a cruise ship, even though equipped with bathrooms, make nursing care far more complex,” he said.

“The design also makes cleaning and disinfection more difficult, in that there are lots of little spaces, rather than several larger spaces.”

Maintaining a sterile environment is crucial for a hospital treating ‘Rona patients. That’s hard to do in a ship that’s filled by design with lots of small nooks and crannies to cram as many people as possible onboard.

Norton also cites difficulties with food service as a challenge. Ship kitchens are built to serve healthy passengers, not sick hospital patients, and they may not be able to deal with the additional difficulties.

Finally, according to Norton, hospital staff is already in short supply. While additional space to host patients would be great, it’s all for nothing if there are no nurses and doctors to look after them.

“In order to put a nurse or a physician on a cruise ship, you would have to take them from an existing medical facility. That is not going to happen,” he concluded.