COVID-19

Why There's No Way Victoria is Getting a 2020 Cruise Season

For any community trying to insulate itself against COVID-19, an arriving cruise ship is an epidemiological nightmare

COVID-19

Why There's No Way Victoria is Getting a 2020 Cruise Season

For any community trying to insulate itself against COVID-19, an arriving cruise ship is an epidemiological nightmare

Cruise ships lined up at Ogden Point in 2019. The centre ship, the Star Princess, is the sister ship to Grand Princess, which was recently quarantined off the California coast due to a COVID-19 outbreak aboard (Credit: Anne Catherine for The Capital).
COVID-19

Why There's No Way Victoria is Getting a 2020 Cruise Season

For any community trying to insulate itself against COVID-19, an arriving cruise ship is an epidemiological nightmare

Why There's No Way Victoria is Getting a 2020 Cruise Season
Cruise ships lined up at Ogden Point in 2019. The centre ship, the Star Princess, is the sister ship to Grand Princess, which was recently quarantined off the California coast due to a COVID-19 outbreak aboard (Credit: Anne Catherine for The Capital).

The world is in the midst of an economic freefall sparked by COVID-19, and one of the hardest hit sectors happens to the same one pumping an estimated $100 million into the Greater Victoria economy every year: The cruise industry.  

“This is just shocking and unfortunate; the cruise business was doing so well, particularly in the Alaskan cruise market,” Ivan Feinseth, a cruise industry analyst with New York’s Tigress Financial Partners, told The Capital. Most notably, the ship scheduled to be 2020’s first arrival in Victoria, the Grand Princess, remains moored off California due to a COVID-19 outbreak aboard ship which required the quarantine and testing of all 3,500 passengers.  

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority is still preparing for business as usual. However, The Capital looked into all the factors increasingly conspiring against Victoria’s 2020 plans to host the largest cruise season in its history.  

At the best of times, cruise ships are breeding grounds for disease

A 2016 study in the journal Scientific Reports referred to the average cruise ship as an “incubator for infectious diseases.” During one of the last major global disease outbreaks – the 2009 spread of H1N1 – nearly 3,000 people who contracted the virus caught it aboard a cruise ship. Even when the world isn’t being swept by a new disease, cruise ships are known to rack up a reliable tithe of gastrointestinal outbreaks. In an average year, 27 cruises will be hit by norovirus.

Already, many Canadian cases of COVID-19 have occurred because the patient was exposed to the virus while on a cruise ship. BC’s 36th case of COVID-19 was a man in his 90s who caught the virus aboard the Grand Princess. Alberta’s first COVID-19 patient is believed to have caught the virus from a travel companion who was also aboard the Grand Princess.

A cruise is basically a cocktail of everything that infectious disease experts recommend avoiding: Thousands of people from are around the world are grouped together for days at a time in relatively close proximity, they’re isolated from conventional medical care, they’re making daily visits to new ports and they’re moving around an environment utterly littered with handrails. On top of everything, they’re probably weakening their immune system by hitting the bar too hard.

Health authorities are singling out cruise ships as vectors for COVID-19

Airlines, hotels, theme parks and professional sports are all feeling the pinch of a world that is increasingly deciding to stay home, but cruise ships are unique as one of the only industries that has been explicitly singled out by health authorities.  

“U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship,” wrote the US State Department in a Sunday travel alert. The US-based Centres for Disease Control “recommends travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, defer all cruise ship travel worldwide.” In Canada, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has recommended that “Canadians avoid all cruise ship travel.” BC’s top doctor, Bonnie Henry, has officially called for the cruise season to be delayed.

The Cruise Lines International Association has responded by adopting a suite of new measures designed to fortify their ships against the spread of COVID-19. This includes careful disinfecting of ships and terminals, as well as turning away any passenger who has recently returned from China, Korea, Italy or Iran – or who is even just showing a fever. However, it remains to be seen if the measures will be enough for health authorities increasingly overwhelmed by the outbreak.

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, for its part, isn’t adopting any special measures without a directive from provincial health authorities. “We will adopt regulations and policies under direction of health officials including province and federal authorities,” authority spokesperson Brian Cant wrote in a statement to The Capital. “What is done in port will be our responsibility under government guidelines.”

Most Victoria-bound cruises are set to visit Seattle, the US epicentre of the disease

Less than six weeks after Washington State recorded the first case of COVID-19 in the United States, the Seattle area has exploded with new diagnoses. In King County alone, there were 190 cases as of Tuesday, including 22 deaths. Most worrying of all, COVID-19 has been confirmed in at least 10 long-term care facilities for the elderly.

Health officials in the region have effectively lost any control over the virus, which is now spreading through the community with increasing speed, leading state authorities to estimate this week that the cases will eventually reach in the “tens of thousands.” In response, Washington State is enacting increasingly strict measures on “social distancing.” This has included closed schools and an effective lockdown on senior’s care homes. Then, on Tuesday, Washington State governor Jay Inslee announced a planned ban on gatherings larger than 250 people.

Archival photo of cruise vessels moored at the Port of Seattle (Port of Seattle).

Of the 283 cruise ships expected to visit Victoria in 2020, 213 are scheduled to begin or end their voyage in Seattle. In May alone, Victoria is set to see more than 10,000 visitors disembarking from ships that set out from Seattle.  

If Washington State is already prepared to ban any gathering larger than an average wedding, it wouldn’t be too much of a leap for state authorities to ban the boarding of vessels designed to hold thousands – particularly if those vessels are going to be drawing thousands of outsiders into the COVID-19-stricken Seattle area.  

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Governments around the world are beginning to turn away cruise ships to protect their own populations

Around the world, a growing number of countries are sealing off their ports from any cruise ship arrivals. Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and Taiwan have banned the vessels outright, while other countries have imposed such strict quarantine measures that they’ve made cruise ship visits impractical. Israel, for instance, is now requiring any new arrivals into the country to self isolate for at least 14 days.

Even in places still welcoming to cruises, such as the Caribbean, all bets are off if there is even a hint of COVID-19 on board. In late February, all it took was a single sick crew member to get the 6,000-passenger MSC Meraviglia turned away from ports in Jamaica. Given that symptoms for the virus are identical to any number of conditions, including flu or the common cold, this is a pretty broad standard by which a cruise ship could suddenly find itself stranded at sea.

On a recent Asian cruise, the Holland America ship Westerdam was turned away by four separate countries, as well as the US territory of Guam, despite not having anybody aboard showing COVID-19 symptoms. The mere fact that the ship had originated in Hong Kong was enough to scare port authorities (Westerdam, by the way, is scheduled to arrive in Victoria for April 18).

Not only are cruise ships known vectors for viruses, but they pose a unique epidemiological nightmare for any community looking to insulate itself against outside infection. A modern cruise ship can disgorge as many as 6,000 people at a time for a port-of-call lasting only a few hours. In early May, the first major weekend of Victoria’s cruise ship season is expected to see as many as 12,500 passengers spun through the city in fewer than 48 hours.

The sheer volume of visitors means that it’s virtually impossible to subject them to the same kind of health screening in place at airports or conventional border crossings. BC has been able to keep COVID-19 reined-in thus far by carefully tracing where each new case was infected in order to map out who else might have been exposed. This task becomes monumentally more difficult if the infection comes from “a crowd of cruise ship passengers.”

One official could bring the whole Alaska cruise season to a halt

Virtually every cruise ship that visits Victoria is sailing to a port in Alaska; usually Ketchikan, Sitka, Tracy Arm or Skagway. Thus, all it would take to bring a halt to Victoria’s 2020 season would be for Alaska to pull the plug.

According to Alaska Public Media, that call is in the hands of one man: Stephen White, a US Coast Guard Official who ranks as the “captain of the port” for all the main cruise terminals in Southeast Alaska. For now, White would probably only exercise his power to turn away ships if the state was approached by a vessel with suspected COVID-19 cases on board (under US law ship’s crews are required to report any potential infectious diseases on board).

However, Alaska has still seen no confirmed cases of COVID-19. Should that change, and Alaska be forced to declare a state of emergency as has already occurred in 12 other states, any number of municipal, state or federal officials could move in to close the ports.

Several US cities have already taken unilateral action to do just that. Santa Barbara, California sees only a fraction of the amount of ships welcomed by Victoria, but this week the city’s mayor officially asked cruise lines to avoid ports-of-call until the Centres for Disease Control lifted its travel advisory against cruises. Monterey, California similarly asked cruises to stay away.

Meanwhile, speculation has begun that the cruise season could ultimately be shut down by a direct from the White House. On Tuesday, US vice president Mike Pence summed up a recent meeting with cruise industry representative by saying “we made it very clear that we need cruise lines to be safer."

Even if 2020 is a bust, there is reason to believe the sector will rebound

It no longer seems plausible that COVID-19 can be prevented from spreading around the globe. At this point, the best case scenario for the virus is that countries can limit the damage through social distancing until it has run its course. China and Korea have both managed to corral the number of new COVID-19 cases, but that was only achieved after the imposition of strict quarantine measures.

In the headquarters of operators like Norwegian Cruise Line or Princess Cruises, 2020 may well be remembered as a nightmare year of cruise vessels trapped at sea by quarantine. However, the cruise industry has proved itself remarkably able to rebound from similarly bleak imagery.  

Consider the impact of the 2012 Costa Concordia sinking. The disaster didn’t only kill 27 passengers and 5 crew, but it peeled back an entire onion of organizational failure including a recklessly showboat captain and an utterly anarchic emergency response. Nevertheless, within five years the stock price of Carnival, the owner of the Concordia, had doubled.

The capsized Costa Concordia before it was raised for salvage. The disaster had almost no effect on global cruise bookings (Source).

It is also a semi-regular occurrence that a cruise ship completely loses power at sea, forcing passengers to become prisoners aboard a darkened hulk at the mercy of the sea. In 2014, a Carnival voyage through the Gulf of Mexico became infamous as the “Poop Cruise” after a loss of power caused the drifting ship to quickly become flooded by overflowing toilets. Just last May, a ship lost power in high seas off Norway, resulting in terrifying videos of passengers awaiting evacuation in common areas thrashed by tumbling furniture.

Despite all of this, the demand for cruises has continued to be meteoric. In 2011, global cruises passengers passed 20 million for the first time ever. By 2018, that number had risen a further 35% to top 27 million.

The current COVID-19-led cruise downturn is sharper than almost anything the industry has seen. But if public health considerations should mandate that Ogden Point lie empty for some of 2020, Victoria can at least take solace that there is no reason to believe it would be permanent. 

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