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How to Survive the CoViD Safety Theater before your Cruise

I’d never imagined being so stressed-out getting ready for a Caribbean cruise.  But then, a lot of things have happened over these last two years that I’d never imagined.

Seven extended-family members and I recently took a holiday cruise on Holland America‘s Nieuw Statendam.  And it was fabulous!

We had planned to take a similar cruise last Christmas.  And so the weeks that led up to this New Year’s adventure were the most stressful I’d experienced in preparing for a vacation, as I teetered on the tightrope between looking forward to a special time with family and fearing that it would be snatched away at any moment.  Perhaps the cruelest outcome of the “new normal” is the way it’s made us afraid to hope.

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Pleasure sailing has roots in 14th-century Holland.  During the Age of Exploration, the Dutch used small fast boats called jaghts to fight pirates, smugglers, and other offenders.  Soon jaght owners began taking their friends out on jaunts for fun and fashionability.  Six centuries later, modern cruising gained popularity, thanks to forces as weighty as post-War prosperity and as frivolous as Aaron Spelling’s The Love Boat.  Cruise lines proliferated from the Swinging Sixties until the Boring Twenties–when policies around the globe gutted travel in general and cruising in particular.

As we round out two years to flatten the curve, the cruise industry is struggling to bounce back.  But more than a year after Gavin Newsom partied at The French Laundry, Anthony Fauci took off his mask to take in a Nationals game, and Donald Trump walked out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after three days thanks to a combination of dexamethosone, remdesivir, and the Regeneron cocktail, the rest of us are still subject to dystopian restrictions and arbitrary protocols.

And so it seemed that daily I found new ways to worry:

(If catastrophizing were an Olympic sport, I would be a gold medalist.)

I’m happy to say that none of these fears materialized.  Most of the prep wasn’t fun, but it did come to fruition.  Here’s what I learned about how to run the gauntlet of health-safety theater so you may walk the gangway onto the ship:

1) Choose your cruise carefully.

There are three main things to consider when deciding which cruise you want to take:

Which cruise line?

Different cruise lines cater to different travellers and vary widely in the level of luxury they provide, the kinds of activities and entertainment they offer, and other factors.

Holland America is a solid choice for travellers seeking a refined experience.  The on-board service is excellent, and there are plenty of interesting and tasteful activities and programs.  Early on, we settled into a pleasant and relaxing evening routine after our days of fun exploring ports or playing aboard ship:  Bar trivia at 6:30, dinner at 7, perhaps an entertainment or educational program, and then nightcaps while listening to the band in the Rolling Stone Rock Room, part of HAL’s signature Music Walk, which features four venues offering live music from pop to classical.

Which departure port?

Since you’ll be in your departure city at least a little while before and after your cruise, it’s worth choosing one you think you’ll enjoy.

Thanks to Florida’s warm weather and relatively sane policies, Fort Lauderdale was a pleasant place to spend several days.  According to the cruising Web site CruiseCompete, the sunny city is the most popular departure port for premium cruisers.

Which destination region?

Perhaps the biggest question is:  Which region do you want to explore?  Cruising is a fine way to sample places you’ve been curious about and might even want to visit later on for longer.

According to CruiseCompete, the Caribbean is the most popular destination for premium cruisers.  Having travelled from Hawaii to the Dead Sea, I can say that the region has among the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen.

And it worked out well to select an itinerary with calls in several different countries, minimizing the likelihood that every port would suddenly be closed to us.

But do not set your heart on a particular port or itinerary; they can change.  When our group chose its cruise more than a year ago, the four stops were:  Half Moon Cay, Bahamas; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; George Town, Cayman Islands, and Cozumel, Mexico.  Early on, one couple reserved a beach villa for us all on Half Moon Cay, the cruise line’s private island.  In late November, we purchased shore excursions for the remaining three ports of call.

In early December, the Cayman Islands set several conditions for our call.  The most arrogant was that Grand Cayman must be the first stop on our itinerary.

Unfortunately, instead of telling the Caymans to drop dead, Holland America decided to encourage their attitude.  The line gutted our itinerary:  We would sail westward rather than east, stopping first at Grand Cayman and then Jamaica.  The revised schedule swapped our 1-9pm New Year’s Eve stop on Cozumel for 7a-2p on Grand Turk.  HAL shortened our visit to Half Moon Cay by a few hours, and cancelled our villa reservation, along with our “Cozumel Highlights” shore excursion.  We sighed and began researching potential sites to see on Grand Turk.

Public reaction on Grand Cayman was swift and snide:  Social-media commenters oozed utter disdain that a cruise ship would be allowed to visit.  The Nieuw Statendam was dubbed the SS Omicron.  Boat owners posted plans to create a blockade with their vessels, as though they were Dutch jachts fending off medieval criminals; the movement even had a hashtag:  #BlockThePort.

Then the Caymans moved the goalposts and demanded that we be tested within 24 hours before disembarking in George Town.  HAL finally did what it should have done in the first place:  just said No.  On December 22, four days before we set sail, Cayman Premier Wayne Panton, in response to a question during a social-media interview, announced that Nieuw Statendam would not be calling.  And the Cayman Islands took the Number 2 spot, behind North Korea, on my (very short) list of places I never want to visit.

In the end, all could not have worked out better.  Holland America re-re-routed us back to our original itinerary, minus Grand Cayman.  Once on board we re-reserved our Half Moon Cay villa and Cozumel excursion.  And the revised schedule alternated between shore days and sea days, which we found wonderfully relaxing.

Take-away:  Never book a cruise with a call in the Cayman Islands. 

2) Keep an eye on current events.

Our Cayman misadventure is just one example of how government officials will toy with your heart.  Watch announcements and sentiments in every country you plan to visit, as well as your own.

And monitor your cruise line’s Web site and communications for information about changing travel requirements.

3) Get vaccinated.

Standard policy is that cruise passengers must be “fully vaccinated” at least 14 days before departure.  (The guidance in this post assumes that you, your fellow cruisers, the crew, and any tour personnel are vaccinated and at little risk of serious CoViD-19.)

I was vaxxed before my July road trip, lured by the bait of being free to travel without a mask.  And since the latest settled science contends that vaccine efficacy peaks two weeks after the jab and then gradually diminishes, I opted to get boosted 14 days before travelling toward Fort Lauderdale.

4) Make a plan for testing.  And a Plan B.  And a Plan C.  And maybe even D.

Just in time for the Christmas season, the CDC changed its guidance to state that cruisers should be tested for C-19 within two days of embarkation.

Make an appointment if you can, but familiarize yourself with several options ahead of time, so that you can change plans rapidly if necessary.  Try to find a provider that doesn’t take insurance, advertise “free” testing, or virtue signal its egalitarianism, as it’s likely to be more responsible and responsive.

Assuming you don’t live in or near your departure city, you’ll need to decide whether to be tested at home or in your port city.  In order to reduce hectic stress, and with an eye fixed on the high number of flight cancellations, we decided to travel to Fort Lauderdale early and test there.

Since our ship sailed on December 26, this meant getting tested on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or Boxing morning.  With many obvious choices like CVS not testing during holidays, and others suddenly changing their holiday hours, this was the biggest source of stress in the weeks and days before we sailed.  I dreaded testing positive and having to miss the cruise, deepening my own depression and complicating matters for my travel companions two days before the trip we’d been looking forward to since the last one was cancelled.  And I felt a constant frustrating helplessness from being required to secure a scarce service I neither wanted nor needed, from an industry that exhibited little sense of incentive or obligation to provide it.  These stresses fed on each other into a kind of super-anxiety greater than the sum of its parts.  There’s nothing like being forced to fight for something that can ruin your family holiday.

Holland America recommended a testing outfit called Curative, whose Web site rhapsodizes about “health equity” and insists, “Everyone should be able to get the care they need, when they need it.”  In late November, we booked testing appointments, providing insurance and other personal information, for December 24 at one of its locations.  Two weeks later, Curative cancelled our confirmed appointments “due to the Christmas holiday”.

Take-away:  Never book with Curative.

One family member found another outfit called BeeperMD, where “everyone is a VIP”, and booked appointments, once again providing sensitive information, for their personnel to come to our hotel during 7-9am on December 24 to test us there.  They claimed they’d confirm on December 23 with a more precise time.  When they never did, we tried several times to contact them via phone and Web chat, to no avail.  And to our vast non-surprise, they didn’t show up on Christmas Eve, nor did they bother to cancel.  They did however send a vague form message later that afternoon apologizing for “any inconvenience”.

Take-away:  Never book with BeeperMD.  

So, we donned our masks and headed over to Lab Doctor, a Fort Lauderdale outfit that doesn’t take insurance or appointments but does offer rapid results for a fee.  We arrived a few minutes after their 8am opening, and there were already dozens of people in line.  There was no way to segregate the sick from the asymptomatic, so if we came down with C-19 on the cruise we’d at least have a pretty good idea where we got it.

All the looming stresses of the past several weeks compacted on that clear and sunny Christmas Eve.  We waited about an hour to be seen.  I spent it feeling like a character in Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery”–excited, nervous, looking forward to the trauma being over soon, knowing that someone’s heart was likely to break.  Would our family fare unlucky in the ritual?  If so, who of us would be the scapegoat(s), removed from the community so that the community could carry on in conformity masquerading as freedom?

We opted to take rapid antigen tests.  PCR tests can show positive results even weeks after a person has recovered from CoViD-19, so if you’ve previously fallen victim to the dreaded plague without a symptom, you could miss out on your cruise.  I wouldn’t call the nasal swab enjoyable, but it was nothing like the brain scrape of my nightmares.  And the nurse who tested me was pleasant and professional.

Then we waited another hour until the last of us (me) received results.  My short-story imaginings shifted to Frank Stockton‘s “The Lady, or the Tiger?”  Would I spend the next week on a cruise, or in quarantine?

When the door opened, the answer was:  Cruise!  We all tested negative.

5) Make flexible travel arrangements.

If you decide to get tested in your port city, I recommend planning to arrive two days beforehand.  This gives you a day’s lee-way in case something goes wrong while minimizing the likelihood of testing positive due to exposure en route.

For peace of mind, if nothing else:  Make sure all your reservations are fully cancellable–flights, hotels, and the cruise itself.  As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, I didn’t cancel my cruise reservation.  But I did change my travel arrangements to get there.  I’d originally planned to fly down on December 20 and spend two calming days in a suite at the beautiful Pelican Grand Beach Resort.

But as Omicron spread, I grew increasingly worried about flying four days before I had to be tested–and about potentially having to quarantine far from home.  So I cancelled my flight and hotel reservations and drove to Fort Lauderdale.  I was trying to minimize exposure, so I didn’t make any site-seeing stops on the drive down, but the journey provided a leisurely road trip on the way back home.  And since a major blizzard walloped the mid-Atlantic on January 3, the date when I’d have been flying back, I’m very glad I made the decision–and that I’d made fully flexible travel arrangements.

6) Isolate.

I went into modified isolation on December 10, two weeks before our planned tests.  Since I live in a city-based high-rise, it’s difficult for me to isolate fully.  I did continue to exercise outside daily, because spending two weeks without sunlight and fresh air in the name of staying healthy would be absurd even by today’s standards–and certain to increase my stress level.

Here’s what I did to minimize the risk of exposure:

Your comfort level may differ, but I hope this list gives you some ideas to mitigate exposure.

7) Prepare to be held hostage.

On November 26, a month before our cruise, Europe panicked over the Omicron variant, to which South African scientists had alerted the world days earlier.  As punishment for this good deed, officials detained passengers from two jets arriving from Cape Town and Johannesburg for roughly a day at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  They trapped the tired travellers on the tarmac for several hours, then herded them onto busses, then packed them into a holding room inside the airport for many more hours, without food or water for much of the time.  Vaccinated or not, recently tested or not, all had to be swabbed for C-19 and await their results under these conditions.  The 61 who tested positive went into quarantine.  The rest who tested negative travelled on to their original destinations.

In other words, approximately 600 people, some already infected and some not yet infected, were crammed together.  They were denied the basic nutrition, hydration, rest, fresh air, and hygiene that help the body ward off illness.  Then after a day most of them were packed onto planes and flown around the world.

With government officials having grown not at all in common sense or common decency during the nearly two years since Donald Trump justified keeping 3,500 people trapped aboard the Grand Princess because he didn’t “need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault”, I decided to pack a survival kit, in case we endured a similar hostage-taking.  Here are some items to consider including in a kit of your own:

I also paid my bills up to my Jan. 15 estimated tax payment, in case I wasn’t home to pay them on time.

I am happy to report that we faced nothing like the super-spreader event in Amsterdam while on the Nieuw Statendam.

8) Board the ship!

Hooray!  If you’ve made it through the gauntlet, you get to go on your cruise!  And you finally get to relax.

In order to board, each of us had to present:

We also had to answer a few questions about whether we were experiencing symptoms of the illness for which we’d been vaxxed and tested negative.

And we had to wear masks while boarding, as well as in all common areas of the ship throughout the cruise, except when eating or drinking, which was much of the time.

Mask hysteria was higher in port.  An official asked me to don mine while I was still outdoors on the pier in Jamaica; I did.  And a fellow traveller presumed to poke me in order to get my attention so that she could nag me to raise my mask while I was sampling Mayan chocolate on Cozumel; I didn’t.

Was it worth it?

Absolutely!  I had a blast (more on the fun side of Caribbean cruising in later posts).  I enjoyed a break in the bizarrely capricious monotony of the “new normal”; my depression has lightened.  And I reconnected with family I hadn’t seen in more than two years.  Family matters; mental health matters; travel matters, and they are worth fighting for.

And now is a great time to cruise.  Our ship sailed at under half capacity, according to her personable Captain Noel O’Driscoll.  There were no crowds to battle; we rarely had trouble finding good seats at meals or shows or just to relax on the observation deck.  One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is that the buffet is now staff-served–no handling utensils a shipload of people have touched to serve yourself food they’ve breathed over.  Even the boarding process was civilized, at least when compared to air travel.

And cruise lines are offering significant booking bonuses.  Our “Have It All” package on Holland America included:  complimentary WiFi, a shore-excursion credit, one dinner in a specialty restaurant, and a beverage package allowing up to 15 drinks per day @≤$11 (I did not max this one out).

Standing on the first-storey porch of our beach villa at Half Moon Cay, looking past the empty lounge chairs on the sand, across the sparkling turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea, with our ship alone at anchor in the distance, we agreed:  This was worth everything we went through to get here.

Bon voyage!

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