Witnessing the events unfold over the past week on the SeaDream 1 cruise ship seemed like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

In an article written by Doug Parker (of Cruise Radio fame) ten days ago, SeaDream Yacht Club officials said that “masks will not be required to be worn on the yacht, thanks to the extensive pre-departure testing designed to create a negative “bubble.” This immediately appeared to me to be a dangerous if not reckless marketing ploy which disregarded not only science and the best efforts of the joint Norwegian Cruise Line – Royal Caribbean Cruises “Healthy Sail” panel’s recommendations which had been adopted by the cruise industry’s trade organization Cruise Line International Association (CLIA).

Cruising during a deadly pandemic is obviously a dangerous idea, even if the ship required its guests and crew members to wear masks. But SeaDream not only made such a reckless decision, but invited an assortment of travel writers, bloggers, and cruise fans to observe the spectacle. SeaDream insisted that it magically created a “safe bubble” that its blogging guests repeated in their press stories.

The handful of travel writers and bloggers joined fifty other guests who suspended logic and reason aboard the first cruise in the Caribbean since the industry was forced to suspend operations in mid-March. Most passengers were from the U.S., U.K. and Canada, among other countries. Most if not all all of these countries have warned their citizens against cruise travel. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCO) of the U.K., where many of the cruise guests reside, clearly “advises against cruise ship travel . . . due to the ongoing pandemic . . .  based on medical advice from Public Health England.” The FCO also restricted travel from England, including internationally, “from 5 November to 2 December 2020” which included the entire time period of this ill-conceived cruise.

Canada also recommends that its citizens avoid all travel on cruise ships outside of the country due to COVID-19. The U.S. Department of State, of course, has warned U.S. citizens against travel by cruise ship since last March. These warnings are in addition to the findings of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that there is “ample evidence” that cruise ship travel has the potential to exacerbate and amplify the spread of coronavirus. In fact, the CDC explains that cruise ships pose a “greater risk” of COVID-9 transmission that other settings. You can read the CDC’s latest order here.

The cruise industry has worked hard to convince the public that cruising is nonetheless safe and to disregard these travel warnings. In fact, SeaDream marketed this cruise for those travelers who wanted to cruise without the hassle of wearing a mask. One of the travel writers invited on the cruise, Gene Sloan who writes as the Points Guy, reported that some of the cruise passengers “signed up for this trip specifically because they were told they wouldn’t have to wear a mask, and they said they wouldn’t have taken the trip if they had known a mask-wearing requirement was coming.”

Mr. Sloan’s photos of no-one-wearing-a-mask-on-the-cruise-ship when he boarded last Saturday, November 7th, caused an uproar on social media. Cruise Radio called the anti-mask cruise “irresponsible.” Another popular cruise commentator, the Cruise Guy, labeled it as “ludicrous.”

Another twenty travel agents and cruise fans voiced their observations of the spectacle of frolicking on a luxury yacht without a mask as asking for trouble. I tweeted: “Hey @CDCgov @CDCDirector take a look at this – no masks by crew members or social distancing via @SeaDreamYC #cruise – how long before a #COVID19 outbreak?”

Sure enough, the following day, several of these travel writers reported that one of the guests reported feeling sick and tested positive for COVID-19, causing the ship to begin a quick return to Barbados. All guests were ordered to quarantine in their window-less and balcony-less cabins (more about that later). CNN tweeted an article which was retweeted many thousands of times with thousands of comments, the majority of which expressed astonishment that people were actually cruising as the U.S. public faced a surge in new COVID-19 cases exceeding an average of well over 100,000 per day.

What then followed was a surreal experience where all of the writers and bloggers felt compelled to post effusive tweets and photos about the quality of the food, the wonderful room service, and how wonderfully they were treated.

Perhaps a more relevant subject for the guests to be thinking about was the risk of staying on the ship. This is an older yacht-style cruise ship which probably has the same design shortcomings of most cruise ships. It is questionable that it has air-conditioning systems designed to bring fresh air into the cabins rather than just recycling stale air and potentially airborne particles. Compounding matters is the fact that the cabins do not have either windows or balconies. Facing accusations that cruise ships are “floating petri dishes” or “super-spreaders at sea,” the larger cruise lines have claimed that their ships have been retrofitted with HEPA filters and new designs that reduce the likelihood of airborne transmission.

Finally, the press-passengers reported via Twitter that additional tests taken by authorities in Barbados revealed that as many as seven passengers tested positive. (It is less than clear whether this included the first person infected). Fortunately, there were reputable journalists like Mr. Sloan aboard who could convey accurate information otherwise it is doubtful that the cruise operator would have been forthcoming with details of the outbreak. The SeaDream organization has consistently refused to provide information to the public, releasing only a single press release that only one guest was “assumptively positive” and that “all guests and non-essential crew members are in quarantine in their staterooms in an abundance of caution.”

The issue now is how long will the passengers on the SeaDream be kept in isolation on the ship? Basic health protocols should require a quarantine of at least 14 days.

Contrary to the SeaDream press release, one guest has been taken ashore in Barbados and hospitalized. A local newspaper in Barbados reported that the Barbados Health and Wellness Minister said that one passenger with COVID-19 is in “isolation facility” ashore with others on the ship. So far, the Minister says: “no one is being allowed to leave the vessel.”

One follower of this blog, who was aboard the ill fated Coral Princess nine months ago, informed me that Barbados did not permit cruise passengers to disembark that cruise ship after an onboard outbreak occurred except for one person in serious condition who later died:

But it appears that most guests believe that they will be permitted to leave he ship and travel home today. If true, such a decision is as irresponsible as not requiring masks at the inception of the cruise.

Obviously, there is a real danger of the virus infecting other travelers if any of these passengers are permitted to fly back to their respective countries without first going through an extended quarantine and then be retested. Of course, Barbados, which has largely kept the coronavirus under control, does not want to see the virus spread in its country. It is doubtful that it will offer to quarantine any additional passengers. And it is equally doubtful that SeaDream is interested in paying for over fifty of its guests to be isolated ashore even assuming that Barbados would agree to such a quarantine plan. So it appears that a decision to fly the passengers home to their respective homes may be made by default caused by neither the home port nor the cruise company taking responsibility.

Irrespective of how SeaDream handles this mess, the outbreak already has the attention not only of the major networks and newspapers, but the U.S. Congress as well. Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who introduced the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, who authored legislation to strengthen cruise safety legislation, have requested CDC Director Redfield to reinstate the “no-sail” order.

Meanwhile, the cruise passengers remain in limbo. They are momentarily stuck between a port state which does not want to incur the wrath of its own citizenry by inviting them ashore, and the cruise line which wants them and their cameras off the ship. The travel advice issued by the U.S., U.K. and Canada included warnings that travelers faced the risk of an extended quarantine and inability to return from their cruise trips. The U.K., in fact, has a prohibition against all travel outside of the country. Under such circumstances, it appears absurd that the cruise guests have any reasonable expectation of traveling back home any time soon.

But, perhaps, no more absurd that cruising during a deadly pandemic in the first place.

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November 14, 2020 P.M. update:

One of the travel bloggers posted a letter from the captain advising the passengers to follow “national and local recommendations and requirements” when they return home. The guest who posted the letter has already completely ignore the U.K.’s FCO travel advice and violated the ban against all travel from that country. It is less than clear whether any of the local transportation companies or the airlines from Barbados have been notified of this outbreak.

Top photo credit: Gene Sloan, the Points Guy.