Negligent actions have consequences…

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This post is also appearing on my regular blog. I’m cross posting it here, because it’s about travel, and my travel blog can always use extra content during a pandemic and “lite lockdown”.

Yesterday on my travel blog, I posted an article about SeaDream Yacht Club’s unfortunate COVID-19 situation. SeaDream, for those who don’t know, is a fantastic all inclusive luxury cruise line. It has two identical “super yachts” and it’s known for being an awesome cruise experience for couples. Bill and I have sailed with them three times. Our last voyage with them was in May 2013, when we sailed from Rome to Athens with a trip through the Corinth Canal.

Bill and I love SeaDream, but circumstances have not lined up for us to sail with them again since Bill left the Army. I still follow their message board on Cruise Critic. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis hit, I’ve been anxiously wondering if this line will survive the pandemic. Things were looking hopeful over the summer, when SeaDream managed to complete several Norway centric cruises without anyone getting sick from the virus.

After their success in Europe, SeaDream came back across the Atlantic and, last Saturday, attempted their first round trip Barbados cruise. In order to pull this off, SeaDream had to change a lot of its standard operating procedures. Prospective passengers had to get a negative COVID-19 PCR test at their own expense 72 hours before flying to Barbados. They had to take another COVID-19 test before getting on the ship, as well as have an interview with the ship’s doctor. Their luggage and shoes were cleaned with ultrasonic technology. Halfway through the voyage, they would have had to have another routine COVID-19 test to satisfy the rules for returning to Barbados. And, while they were cruising, they visited empty beaches, took catamaran cruises, and engaged in activities that did not allow them to be in contact with any host country nationals.

Having been on a SeaDream cruise, I can tell you that I’m sure it was just fine even without the freedom to engage with locals, shop on the economy, or go exploring. I’m not sure if the piano bar was open, but that was my favorite part of a SeaDream cruise anyway, besides the many cocktails and endless champagne.

Unfortunately, someone DID get sick with COVID-19. As of Wednesday morning, the 53 passengers have been stuck in their staterooms, which I can attest to being really nice, but not very large. The windows don’t open and there are no balconies. It’s a nice cage, but it’s still a cage.

A video done by a couple of Geordie lads who have been blogging about SeaDream’s voyages. They are on the ship as I write this.

The person who got sent to a Bajan hospital with COVID-19 was part of a group of six who evidently decided to overnight in Miami on the way to Barbados. From what I’ve read, other passengers heard the afflicted one talking about partying in the south Florida city for a night. Four others in that group also had positive COVID-19 tests, but evidently aren’t showing symptoms. The fifth person’s test was inconclusive.

Now… in thinking about this, it occurs to me just how many people have been affected by this group’s decision to overnight in Miami…

  1. 47 people have had a very expensive and luxurious vacation ruined.
  2. 66 crew members have had their livelihoods directly threatened.
  3. 113 people have had their health threatened.
  4. The entire cruising industry has had another blot on it regarding health and safety standards.
  5. Hundreds of future passengers will be affected because SeaDream will be cancelling upcoming cruises.
  6. All of the businesspeople depending on support revenue for the cancelled cruises will lose money– ie; pet boarding, taxi services, airlines, etc.
  7. People watching SeaDream to see if cruising during a pandemic could be done safely will be affected.
  8. A whole lot of people have been affected by this… I hope that night out in Miami was worth it.

It really is a shame that this happened. As I wrote in my travel blog, I won’t consider cruising again until there’s an effective vaccine against COVID-19. I don’t think cruising while fretting about a virus on a luxury ship is a lot of fun. Hopefully, we’ll get this virus under control before too long. On the other hand… I’m not holding my breath.

Hopefully, those who got sick won’t get too sick… and the passengers will be able to get off the ship and go home without too much trouble. We’ll see what happens. Actions have consequences. But, on the bright side, by undertaking this experiment, SeaDream has provided some valuable data for others. Perhaps that will help some smart people figure out the best way to get back to a life approaching normal at some point.

ETA: the count is now up to seven COVID positive.

SeaDream Yacht Club forced to return to Barbados due to COVID-19…

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Some people are bound and determined to try to keep living life the usual, pre-COVID-19 way. As much as I would like to do that myself, I know, as someone who has an advanced degree in public health, as well as someone with plain old common sense, that it’s not a good idea. Cruising, right now, seems especially ill-advised, even as it remains a tempting diversion.

Bill and I enjoy cruises. We particularly like to sail on small vessels with all inclusive terms. So far, we’ve sailed on Royal Caribbean (one four night cruise), Hebridean Island Cruises (five cruises), and SeaDream Yacht Club (three cruises). Hebridean and SeaDream are both considered by many people to be “luxury” cruises, mainly because they offer a high standard of service and are all inclusive.

Until recently, I’d been wanting to sail on SeaDream again. Our last cruise with them was in May 2013. Over the course of an unforgettable week, we traveled from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Athens (Piraeus). It had been our habit to pre-book cruises on SeaDream. We’d pay $2500 for an “open booking” while still oboard, which would allow us to choose one at a later date that fit our schedule and logistics. But in 2013, Bill was staring down his retirement from the Army, and we weren’t sure what the future held in terms of his employment. We didn’t pre-book another cruise on our last voyage and, so far, things haven’t lined up for us to cruise on SeaDream again, although we are more able to afford it now than we ever have been.

Even though it’s been over seven years since our last magical SeaDream cruise, I’ve continued to follow them on Cruise Critic’s message boards. SeaDream has been in the news lately because it’s resumed cruises in the Caribbean. It recently had a three week transatlantic crossing for SeaDream I, which began in Oslo, Norway and arrived in Barbados. The resumption of cruising was met with many cheers. Indeed, right now, there are several representatives of the press and travel bloggers aboard the ship, including a representative from Cruise Critic. Everyone was hoping they could make cruising during a pandemic successful so that people might start having some fun again and people whose livelihoods come from cruising could get back to work.

One blogger in particular, Gene Sloan of “The Points Guy”, has been covering the voyage extensively and posting pictures on Twitter. A few days ago, he posted photos of staff members not wearing face masks. That led to a lot of angry comments from people who saw the post. But, Sloan reiterated, that before anyone was allowed to embark the ship, everyone had to have two negative COVID-19 tests– one prior to flying to the island and one by the ship’s doctor prior to embarking on the ship. Everyone in the group that has been cruising recently tested negative– and there are only 53 passengers onboard, as opposed to the 112 that SeaDream vessels can usually accommodate. Staffing is at 66 members, so service has probably been incredible. Aside from the testing, SeaDream invested in ultrasonic cleaning devices that supposedly made cleaning “hospital grade”.

Apparently, passengers were assured that they would not have to wear face masks on the ship during the cruise. That was the main reason some people booked the voyage in the first place. They wanted a break from the COVID-19 nightmare and the oppressive face masks that have come with it. And– make no mistake– despite my public health background, I do hate the masks, even as I understand that they’re necessary for now. I totally understand why some people booked so they could escape having to wear the damned things. Since SeaDream did have a successful three week cruise from Oslo and required so much testing prior to embarkation, I’m sure plenty of people felt perfectly safe. I know I would have.

As it turns out, a passenger on the current voyage did start feeling poorly. Passengers would have been required to be tested again anyway, per Barbados’ requirements, but the passenger who felt ill requested a test prior to the one that was already planned. It came up positive. Prior to the positive test, SeaDream had reversed course on its no mask requirement, and passengers were asked to wear masks when they weren’t eating, drinking, or in the water. People were pissed off enough about that– but now they’ve been ordered to their staterooms until they’re all tested again. And who knows if they will be able to continue the cruise, thanks to the one person who tested positive.

I posted about this situation last night, since I have at least one friend who has had the magical SeaDream experience (in fact, that’s where we met). I wrote this:

Not good. They are getting bad press, too, because they weren’t making people wear masks. I wouldn’t want to be on a cruise in which I had spent $10,000 (for two people) and be forced to wear a mask, either. Seems like now isn’t the best time to be cruising. And now they have someone who is COVID positive. Yikes.

In response, I got this comment:

Would you want to spend $10,000 on a cruise and catch the virus because someone didn’t wear a mask?

I was actually a little surprised and disappointed that someone would assume my comment was simply an “anti-masker” statement. I do hate the masks and feel quite fine in saying so out loud. That doesn’t mean I’m non-compliant or in need of an intervention. I do understand why masks are required for now.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, my mantra has been that it’s more important to stay home as much as possible. That’s what I’ve been doing. I have literally not left our neighborhood since October 4th, when we came back from Slovenia with Noyzi. During that trip, we didn’t even eat in a restaurant. This is the same thing I did for about three months last spring– I stayed home almost exclusively from March until June, going out only to walk the dog. That, to me, is much better protection against COVID-19 than a mask is. People will still get sick whether or not masks are worn; it’s just a question of the ease of virus transmission, which is somewhat less when people wear masks. So, to the person who made the above query, this was my response:

No, I would not consider spending that kind of money on a cruise until a vaccine is available. I don’t plan to cruise if people are going to be required to wear face masks, especially on a line like SeaDream, where alcohol is included. I have sailed with them three times and have seen firsthand how people can behave. Lots of money plus entitled attitudes plus booze equals trouble, particularly during a pandemic. People drink a lot on those cruises.  

The blogger who was sharing pictures of the staff members not wearing masks got screamed at by a fellow passenger. Evidently, they were told that masks would not be required and they would not have booked the trip if they were told they had to wear them onboard.

The mask mandate came on Monday night after the pictures went live and people were posting angry comments about the irresponsibility of not masking, despite the many measures that were taken before people were allowed to embark. But, as this article reports, despite everyone being tested three times pre cruise, someone came up positive. I have gotten sick on cruises before and would definitely not want to risk it right now with COVID. It’s very easy to get sick on a cruise. But I also hate the masks and would not find cruising fun while wearing them, anyway.

To be clear– I think it’s crazy to spend five figures on a luxury cruise right now. Some people don’t mind wearing face masks everywhere. That’s good for them. I would definitely not enjoy being forced to wear a mask on a cruise, yet I understand that masks help stem the tide of COVID-19. I will wear them where I have to wear them, but no one needs to be on a luxury cruise during a pandemic. So, until an effective vaccine is available, I won’t be cruising at any price.

I will admit that I would be particularly pissed off if I’d spent $10,000 to be stuck in my stateroom and forced to wear a mask in a place like Barbados. I have been to Barbados, and it’s a very beautiful place akin to actual paradise! But I don’t need to go there so badly that I’d travel there from Europe during a pandemic. And now, it’s possible the people who are on that cruise will spend ten-fourteen days holed up in Barbados in quarantine, likely at their own expense! No, thank you.

There is promising news of an effective vaccine being made out of company in Mainz, Germany, only twenty minutes from where I live. The story surrounding the creation of the vaccine is fascinating on many levels; I hope someone will make a movie out of it or write a book. The married couple who have been working on the vaccine are really interesting people who seem to be focused on doing actual good. I can wait to cruise until their work is completed and we have an effective weapon against the virus that makes it less contagious and dangerous.

As I mentioned before, I have sailed with SeaDream three times. It’s a beautiful experience. The staff is wonderful and kind and mostly genuine. The ship is small– a bit old, but pristine, and immaculately maintained. The itineraries are interesting, exciting, and unique. I have met several great people on that ship, to include a couple of famous folks (who were surprisingly normal). But as incredible as SeaDream or any other cruise experience is, I have experienced getting sick on at least three cruises– twice with nasty colds and once with the dreaded norovirus, which made me puke and gave me horrendous diarrhea for about 36 hours of sheer digestive hell as I was also enduring my menstrual period (fortunately, the sickness was coming on as we were disembarking).

It’s VERY EASY to get sick on a cruise, although with only 53 people onboard, there’s plenty of room for social distancing on SeaDream I right now. The fact remains that you’re in an enclosed environment and you eventually will be exposed to everyone. In fact, I remember on our last cruise on Hebridean Princess, one of the staffers told me that he was always having to battle sickness. It was passed around the ship. If someone came aboard who was sick, there was a very good chance everyone else eventually would be, too; and they’d still have to work, regardless, so that means they’d also be spreading their germs.

Alcohol is included in SeaDream’s fare, and they weren’t going to require masking while eating and drinking. I have seen firsthand that booze is freely offered on SeaDream. You could spend the whole time drinking champagne and eating warmed peanuts if you wanted to– and I have done just that. Ordinarily, that would be a selling point for me, but I have seen the way some people behave after a few drinks. On one SeaDream cruise, Bill and I witnessed a drunk man helping himself to booze, getting very angry at a group of passengers, and actually inviting one or two of them to “step outside”. Imagine how he would react to being required to “mask up” after paying so much to be onboard the ship!

I am a writer myself, although not a famous one (at least in most circles). I can imagine innocently posting a photo from my travels, having it go viral due to someone noting that precautions aren’t being taken, and then being yelled at by another cruiser for spoiling his experience. That has happened to Gene Sloan from The Points Guy, who no doubt was doing his part to publicize SeaDream’s cruise and get the industry going again. Yes, you’d better believe that some people will pay for a maskless experience– same way some people will pay for a condomless prostitute. I can’t blame them at all for wanting to vacation without a mask, but doing so right now isn’t a very smart idea. And paying $10,000 to do it and expecting that nothing will go wrong is also not a very good idea, even though SeaDream cruises are forever tempting. The fact remains that COVID-19 is a real thing and it’s sneakily determined to fuck up everyone’s fun, no matter what.

So I’m going to stay on land for now. I don’t want to wear a mask on a cruise. That wouldn’t be fun for me. And I don’t want to pay $10,000 to be on a luxury cruise, having made the extreme efforts to be COVID-19 negative, only to be trapped on a boat and confined to my stateroom because someone comes up positive (and I don’t blame them– they probably have no clue where they got the virus). I really hope SeaDream and other cruise lines can stay afloat during this mess. I would love to sail with them again, but not until we’ve sorted out this pandemic. Norovirus was bad enough. I’d like to avoid respirators for as long as possible.

My pandemic birthday… part three

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We both enjoyed a really good night’s sleep at the Vital Hotel. The mattresses are very comfortable. My only complaint about the beds were the linens, which could have been better quality. I didn’t use one of the bathrobes because I brought my own. Bill did, and noticed one of the sleeves had holes in it. However, those are minor complaints. Again, I was glad we brought our own pillows, because like a lot of hotels in Germany, the Vital Hotel’s are a bit small and stingy.

At breakfast, a waitress took our names and room number– again, contact tracing– as she led us to a table. Buffet breakfasts are a thing of the past. Now, they give you a piece of paper with everything available listed. You mark what you want and they bring it to you. Bill ordered scrambled eggs and bacon for himself, and I had smoked salmon with horseradish. We both had fruit salad, and bread comes out automatically. You can also have an assortment of cereals, yogurt, cold cuts, cheeses, and fried eggs.

I noticed at the table near us, there was a little blond boy with his parents. He spoke English and German, but probably wasn’t too much older than three. I was impressed. That kid is going to have quite an advantage over some of his peers.

After breakfast, we donned our masks, went back to the room, and changed into our bathing suits. Then we took the elevator nearest our room to the ground floor, where we used our watches at a turnstile and found ourselves looking at very impressive pools. Well… they are impressive, for sure, as hotel pools, especially by American standards. By German standards, I don’t think this particular Therme is as awesome as a few of the others I’ve been to. However, what I did like about it is that it was not at all crowded. The chairs were all marked with signs to enforce social distancing. We easily found a couple of lounges perched on a bridge that overlooked the main, dazzling pool with its fountain.

Naturally, I didn’t bring my phone to the spa, so I didn’t get any pictures of the Therme. However, you can easily find pictures on the Therme’s official Web site. We didn’t try the saunas, although I would imagine they are textile free, like most German saunas are. The steam rooms, snack bar, and massage rooms were also closed, although the Therme has a big gym that is in operation. We didn’t use the locker rooms because we had direct access from the hotel. We did notice that they limited the number of people allowed in there at a time.

We enjoyed the wave pool and the jacuzzi, although they didn’t seem to be turning on the jets as often as usual. I noticed the water wasn’t always as warm as I thought it would be. Again, I like the Mineraltherme in Böblingen a bit more, because not only does it have a nice sized bathing suit area, but there’s also an area where you can go textile free. But it was a pleasure to be at the Therme yesterday because it wasn’t crowded at all.

I did notice a baby pool that seemed popular, although little kids were in the big pools, too. And kids were jumping when they weren’t technically supposed to be, but that was no big deal. I’m sure they were happy to be swimming, burning off some of that pent up energy. One boy was throwing a ball in the wave pool, skipping it across the surface. Under normal circumstances, he would probably not be able to do that, because the pool would have been a lot fuller.

After a couple of hours, we decided to go have lunch. But first, I wanted to try one of the waterslides. I used to love slides when I was a kid. I happily exhausted myself at Water Country USA back when it first opened. One of my friends’ dads actually helped build that park in Virginia back in the mid 1980s. But as I got older, I lost my nerve. Bill doesn’t like slides or rides, so that made me less inclined to try them. I skipped the slide at the tree walk and the salt mines in Hallstatt, Austria. Both times, I regretted not taking the opportunity. So yesterday, I decided I was going to do it. It was perfect, since it wasn’t crowded.

I climbed the stairs, getting more nervous with each flight. At the top, I noticed the green slide wasn’t working. The water on the blue side was plentiful and strong. I looked at the graphics showing the best way to slide, took a minute to steady myself, and laid on my back. Next thing I knew, I was hurtling at full speed down the twisty, windy covered slide, part of which was blackened with more plastic. I kept going faster and faster, and I was suddenly very glad for precise German engineering when I finally hit the water below and it entered my sinuses. Bill said my eyes were like saucers and I know I had a huge grin on my face. Maybe I would have done it again if not for the steep climb. 😉

I will save my comments about our fabulous lunch for the next post. It deserves it’s own post, and I think I might need to pause for a nap. You can kind of see the slide in the featured photo. Germans do not play with their water slides. Every one I’ve seen has been very impressive and fun– and very safe!