Cruising past COVID-19 pandemic

Cruise industry looks to save face following coronavirus fears

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Amid the scrutiny and devastation of COVID-19’s effect on the travel trade, one industry has kept the attention of a persistent and wary eye – cruise lines.

Recently, the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure announced an investigation into Carnival Corporation’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic after a slew of outbreaks on board resulted in nearly 60 deaths, according to a Miami Herald investigation.

Cruising is “big industry” in the state, generating 11.5 million passenger and crew visits and representing nearly half (48%) of all passenger and crew visits in the U.S., according to Cruise Lines International Association. North Florida, in particular, makes an attractive location for ships because it is centrally positioned within a short driving distance for passengers throughout the Southeast.

Dorothy Flannery, a travel agent with Cruise Planner’s Top Sail Journeys, said that the amount of attention paid to cruising during COVID-19 was grossly inflated.

“These quasi-scientific terms [the media] use like ‘incubators’ or ‘petri’ dishes for cruise ships make me shudder,” Flannery said. “When anything happens on a cruise ship it splashes across the headlines, unlike if it happens in a hotel or otherwise.”

Prior to COVID-19, the industry has seen coverage of norovirus outbreaks on ships.

“There have been a lot of allusions to cruises where you hear outrageous stories of a ship being stricken,” Flannery said. “It actually happens frequently in schools and office buildings. It happens constantly and you never hear about it.”

Whether or not cruise ships are inherently high-risk settings for pathogens remains open to debate. Many consider COVID-19’s high transmutability and danger for older individuals makes the industry exceptionally vulnerable.

Flannery said she starting handling “panicked” travelers as early as January. When cruises started canceling sailings at the end of February, future passengers were taking less than 50% of their money back in an attempt to cut their losses. After a 100-day presidential extension of “no cruising,” the earliest sailings are now set for August, according to a recent release from Carnival.

Jacksonville’s Jaxport, which handles cargo in addition to serving as the homeport for the 2,056-passenger Carnival Ecstasy, said although it’s regular cruise ships have vacated, some may be returning as early as this week.

For those that waited until after their departure dates were canceled, they have received an option of a 125% credit for any future cruises. Cruises that are currently being booked by the minute, according to Flannery.

“[The] 2021 demand is high,” she said. “[About] 95% have opted for the future cruise credit.”

For those that have booked, the future of cruising may look significantly different than it had in the past. For one, many cruises are requiring a doctor’s note from anyone 70 and older saying they are medically fit to sail.

“It’s going to come back slowly, responsibly and scientifically,” Flannery said. “There are new protocols put in place. There is going to be a higher level of passenger screening before they come on board. The onboard crew is being trained to be on the lookout for signs of illness in passengers and to report that to medical staff. Cruise lines take this very seriously, they have one chance to get it right because of the hyper awareness that the media puts on them.”

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