The world's largest cruise ship, the Wonder of the Seas: the wonder was the absence of covid precautions
Caroline and I sailed on the world's largest cruise ship, the Wonder of the Seas (WOTS), April 20 through May 12, 2022. The WOTS is operated by Royal Caribbean, and has 18 decks. When full, the ship has 2,300 crew members and accommodates up to 6,988 guests across its 2,867 staterooms.
We were on this ship for 4 consecutive cruises (more on this later). For the first cruise, from Fort Lauderdale (FL) to Barcelona (Spain), there were "only" 3,648 passengers, which was 52% of capacity.
We were on one of the last cruises in January, 2020, before the industry shut down. That was on the Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas. Two weeks later, the crew and guests on the cruise ship Diamond Princess were quarantined in a Japanese port. For us, it was a lucky miss.
Now, we were on the WOTS. On February 15, 2022, Royal Caribbean lifted their mask mandate, and no masks were required for vaccinated passengers, although all crew used KN95 masks at all times. And the passengers seemed to revel in this new freedom. Voluntary mask wearing was not the norm, and I estimated that only 20-25% of passengers used them. The social distancing standard (6 feet) was completely gone. Elevators were packed with unmasked people. No empty seats separated parties at theaters, where mask use was even less, for some reason (concerned people staying away?).
What I know is that on the transatlantic cruise (from Fort Lauderdale to Europe), a 14 day cruise, the majority of our friends on the cruise ended up either testing positive for this coronavirus, or were rooming with someone who tested positive. Rumors abounded about what happened if you tested positive, but we had friends who were quarantined to their room, quarantined to a "covid deck," and even removed from the ship and asked to quarantine in Barcelona. The crowd in the MDR (main dining room) toward the end of the cruise was conspicuously reduced in size.
Certainly, some of the reduction in guests could be because people were dining in other restaurants. But given that people talk, and our own experiences with our group, Covid-19 was really hitting the guests.
Here's the math. You needed to be tested 2 days prior to boarding. However, the incubation period for the virus is 2-14 days after exposure. You won't get a positive result immediately after exposure; it takes 3-5 days for the virus to replicate enough copies to be detected. So some number of people had the virus, tested negative because they had been exposed too recently for it to be detected, and then were turned loose on a ship with no required safety measures in place (no mask requirements for vaccinated passengers; no requirements regarding social distancing). To add to the viral stew, there was plenty of alcohol to reduce inhibitions, noisy environments to encourage shouting, and gambling environments where everyone touches everything.
Here's the psychology. Who wants to be quarantined to their room? So, if you didn't feel too badly, you just told everyone you had a cold or suffered from allergies, and kept on with your onboard activities (and spread the virus). And if you felt so bad you needed to contact medical, you were tested, then quarantined. This means that, whatever the "official" count was, there were many more infected people on board than the official count. We talked with a number of crew members, and there were over 100 people testing positive. To me, when you add confirmed and unconfirmed cases, that means hundreds were infected. And to demonstrate that these numbers are possible, in November 2022, the cruise ship Majestic Princess had an outbreak. All 4,000 passengers were tested. Eight hundred (800!) tested positive.
Soon after this WOTS cruise, CDC retired their "COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships," with the color-coded records. Cases above 0.3% of those onboard (3 cases out of 1,000 people onboard) earned "orange status." That would be about 11 people for WOTS's 3,648 passengers. If at least 100 people were infected, then that was 2.7% of the passengers. I would double that number at a minimum.
At the end of the transatlantic, people testing positive weren't allowed to return to the US (if that was where they were headed). For a time, this was a major topic of discussion on Cruise Critic and WOTS Facebook groups, trying to navigate getting a physician's note ("documentation of recovery") and thus could return. And for the travelers who contracted the virus just before disembarking, they brought it home for their family and friends.
The bottom line? Royal Caribbean failed to manage Covid-19 on board. The CDC tells people that "Cruise travelers have the option of contacting their cruise line directly regarding outbreaks occurring on board their ship." Right. There were no announcements. The covid prevention protocols had ended. It was a viral Wild West.
Caroline and I were pretty careful, wearing masks except when eating or drinking, taking the stairs instead of the crowded elevators, going to the gym in the morning when it was empty, and having fun with activities outside in the open air. We got off the ship whenever possible, and enjoyed our excursions.
The trip finally ended, and we were treated to an additional 2, two day "familiarization cruises" for travel agents and influencers. Most people from the transatlantic disembarked, and a bunch of eager, mostly younger cruisers got on board. Get this... we had just finished a cruise where 2 to 5+% of the passengers were infected with Covid-19. But this new crowd, for both trips, not only were not informed of this, but practiced no prevention techniques other than washing before meals (which is really for preventing norovirus outbreaks, not Covid-19 infections).
On the positive side, there was a very obvious jump in the quality of the service, the food, and the amenities. The crew knew the influencers were on board!
|Gold medal winner in singles table tennis!
|"Voices: an intimate performance on a grand scale"
As required, we got tested for Covid-19 in Barcelona, Spain, 24 hours before departing for the US.
The staff of the WOTS worked very hard during these cruises, wearing masks throughout their shifts (unless they were the performers). Thanks to these dedicated staffers, we really enjoyed the cruises. However, be aware that the risk of contracting Covid-19 is real. Don't expect your fellow passengers to protect you. Be a well-behaved traveler, and don't spread contagious diseases to people in other lands.