It's no secret that many countries are doing better than the United States when it comes to containing Covid-19 infections. A few of those places thought they might be able to extend their successes to the seas and bring back cruising in a safer, modified form, at least for smaller ships.
They were wrong. The safety systems they put in place did not prevent infections from being discovered on board.
Over the past few days, one cruise line after another has been humbled by the insidious tenacity of the coronavirus, proving that if the cruise industry thinks it can develop a system for containing the virus, it still has a long way to go.
The worst outbreak has been in Norway on Hurtigruten's Roald Amundsen, which had resumed sailing in July. Following a 7-day run up the Norwegian coast (pictured above) to the Svalbard archipelago, four crew members, who were feeling unwell and had been placed in isolation as a precaution, tested positive when they reached the port town of Tromsø. When the cruise line tested the rest of the crew, it found another 32 positive cases.
We haven't heard the last of Hurtigruten's outbreak, either. On Friday, July 31, even as the ship held those four crew members in isolation with suspected cases of Covid-19, Hurtigruten permitted 178 passengers to disembark with no screening, triggering a scrambled (and so far, incomplete) effort to track them down and figure out who they've been in contact with since then.
One reason Hurtigruten returned to sailing so soon is that its ships are seen as a transport necessity in Norway. Although they accept tourists, who receive a luxury cruise experience on board, the ships also serve as a ferry service for many of the isolated towns in the fjords. Over the course of Hurtigruten's operations in the preceding weeks, the ships called at numerous villages, where passengers and crew got on and off ships. Consequently, piecing together the source of the infections may prove more difficult than it would be for a standard cruise ship with fewer transient passengers and fewer stops.
As many as 69 Norwegian towns could have been affected.
“We have made mistakes," the company's CEO said in a statement. "On behalf of all of us in Hurtigruten, I am sorry for what has happened. We take full responsibility.”
No Americans were on board; currently, only locals and citizens of carefully selected European nations have been permitted to use Hurtigruten. The ships have been operating with limited capacity and using strict social distancing rules. Hurtigruten has suspended its expedition cruises in response to the infections.
Unfortunately, that hasn't been the only outbreak.
On the other side of the world, Ponant's Paul Gauguin resumed sailing around the islands of French Polynesia on July 18. At first, Ponant only accepted bookings from Tahiti locals, but on July 29, after the South Pacific nation reopened to outsiders, the line began accepting travelers from elsewhere.
That was on a Wednesday. By the weekend, after a 2-day call at the island of Bora Bora, a crew member had tested positive for the coronavirus, although it's not yet known where the worker contracted the disease.
All 148 passengers are now reportedly confined to their cabins in the country's principal port of Papeete while authorities sort out who's infected and who isn't.
In a third outbreak, 10 crew members of AIDA Cruises in Germany tested positive as they reported to their ships to prepare to resume sailing in mid-August. In this case, the infections were discovered before the crew members had mingled with their colleagues and before the ships had accepted passengers, so this incident could be seen as a successful use of new pre-sailing screening protocols.
The infection lapses in Norway and French Polynesia have been mourned as a setback for the cruise industry. But we prefer to see them as instructive.
The United States, which is the largest market for the cruise industry, has yet to resume its own return to cruising—in fact, a date hasn't even been set. So what's being learned aboard these international carriers will only help U.S. lines figure out optimal safety strategies.
The Centers for Disease Control is still formulating its recommendations for safe operations. The challenge is proving more complex than had been hoped. While the CDC's No Sail Order is currently in effect until September 30, the order is likely to be extended, and many cruise lines have voluntarily postponed their delays to even later. There will be no full returns until November at the soonest for brands including Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess, Carnival, Holland America, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Let's hope the stumbles by Hurtigruten and Ponant result in no loss of life, and that by their trial and error, the industry can develop the ideal protocols for keeping people—and the cruise industry—healthy.
Update, August 5: Add another one to the list. UnCruise's Wilderness Adventurer, a small ship carrying 30 crew and 36 passengers, discovered a single Covid-19 case among its customers three days into a sailing. The trip, which was the first Alaska cruise attempted this season, was halted and the passengers are quarantined in a hotel in Juneau while authorities complete testing. The infected passenger had no observable symptoms and discovered the diagnosis when they received test results while aboard. The ship had been permitted to sail by the CDC because it carries fewer than 250 passengers.
Update, August 13: The passenger from Wilderness Adventurer who had unexpectedly tested positive was retested, and this time, the result was negative. It's now believed that the original test rendered a false positive. Unfortunately, by the time the new test was completed, the cruise had been cancelled and the other customers, who also tested negative, had gone their separate ways.