Christine Beehler was on a two-week cruise voyage around South America when Covid-19 caught up with her ship.
Denied entry in Brazil, the Coral Princess spent two weeks searching for a port before docking in Florida on April 4.
By the time the vessel arrived in US waters, there were 12 confirmed cases of Covid-19 on board and two passengers had died.
When New Hampshire-based Beehler returned home on April 6, she also tested positive for coronavirus.
Beehler is 72, with a partial right lung. She also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, which means she sometimes experiences breathing difficulties.
Fortunately, Beehler says she had a relatively mild case of coronavirus and she’s since made a full recovery.
She says her symptoms were mostly being very tired and experiencing a lack of taste.
While recovering at home, Beehler was inundated with messages from former shipmates who’d also tested positive on their arrival home, or displayed symptoms.
In response to CNN’s request for statistics on how many Coral Princess passengers contracted Covid or died from the virus, Princess Cruises told CNN that “the company is not an official source for cases or fatalities and can only provide what we have officially been made aware of or had confirmed to us by appropriate officials.” The cruise line could confirm 12 cases and three deaths, but added that “once passengers have left the ship, updates related to their condition (which are also private) are not provided back to the company by health authorities.”
Avid cruiser Beehler was looking forward to five further voyages booked through 2020.
They’ve all since been canceled, but Beehler’s not let getting stranded at sea – or catching Covid-19 – put her off cruising.
In fact, she’s keen to return to the seas as soon as she can.
“Even without a vaccine, I’m ready to try it,” Beehler tells CNN Travel. “There are so many places that I still want to go, and I enjoy cruising.”
Beehler says part of her optimism stems from the fact she’s had Covid. Still, how coronavirus immunity works is still unknown and Beehler is aware that having the virus once doesn’t rule out catching it again.
“But I’m willing to take the chance,” she says.
A new normal
When and how cruising will restart in the wake of the pandemic is still unclear.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently extended its No Sail Order through September 30.
The accompanying executive summary states that, according to CDC data, there’s been a total of 2,973 Covid-19 or Covid-like cases of illness aboard cruise ships, in addition to 34 deaths, between March 1 and July 10.
“The current scientific evidence suggests that cruise ships pose a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than other settings,” said the CDC in the document.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry group representing the world’s major cruise lines, had already voluntarily extended its suspension of cruise operations for US ports until September 15.
Meanwhile, Princess Cruises has canceled sailings in regions including Asia, the Caribbean, South America and Antarctica until December 15, 2020.
Beehler is aware that cruising in the age of coronavirus is an unknown. It’s likely the onboard experience will be pretty different in the future: no buffets, social distancing and fewer passengers could be the new normal.
Beehler tends to travel solo and so a big appeal of cruising is the onboard socializing.
“A lot of things I enjoy, being around people – it’s not going to be the same,” she says.
“I can’t how imagine how dining, for instance, is going to take place. Are they going to put me on a table by myself? Those of us who don’t have anyone to travel with, are we going to be alone most of the time? That certainly takes the appeal away.”
Beehler’s currently got her Princess Cruises’ South American voyage rebooked for spring next year. But she’s considering changing it to a shorter trip, to ease her way back into cruising.
She says her friends and family think she’s crazy to return to the seas so quickly, and many of her former Coral Princess shipmates have told her they’ve quit cruising.
But Beehler’s counting down the days until she can step on board a ship. She’s a cruise devotee, and she doesn’t see that changing because of this negative experience.
“When I was younger, I used to just get on a plane and head to Europe and figure out what I was going to do then. But now, as I’m older and traveling alone, it’s just a very … I was going to say safe. Maybe not the proper word right now. But it’s a convenient way for someone to see a lot of places in a short time.”
On the Coral Princess, Beehler spent an extended period of time in lockdown in her cabin.
“That was not a pleasant experience, but it was compounded by the fact that I had Covid even though I didn’t realize it,” says Beehler. “So it’s not an experience I’d want to repeat, however, I have to say that I thought they took very good care of us.”
According to the CDC’s recent document explaining the No Sail Order extension, 14,000 crew remain on ships in US waters. The CDC cites limited availability of charter flights (according to CDC regulations, disembarking crew cannot travel home on commercial flights, unless they have prior CDC approval), cost burden and some countries refusing to accept returning crew, as the main reason why so many remain on board.
The CDC also said there are nine ships which still have ongoing coronavirus outbreaks on board.
“The crew went beyond, and they were so kind and I’m really sad the way that it took them so long to get home and so many of them got sick,” says Beehler.
As a retired travel agent, Beehler worries about crew losing their jobs – and about the wider impact of this pause in operations on those reliant on the cruise tourism dollar, such as the independent vendors and tour guides who usually operate in ports across the globe.
“How are they surviving? My hope is that soon, hopefully, in 2021, the ships start sailing again,” says Beehler.
Last summer, 26-year-old teacher Izzy Bogle went on her first cruise, a Mediterranean voyage with Royal Caribbean on board the Independence of the Seas.
And it was one to remember: on the first night, Bogle’s partner, James Rhatigan, proposed.
The couple spent the remainder of the trip celebrating their engagement with fine dining, watching dolphins dancing through the waves from the deck, exploring new cities and switching off from their busy lives back in the UK.
Bogle, skeptical at first, quickly became a cruise convert. So much so that the couple planned a cruise-based honeymoon for this summer, traveling around Norway and Iceland on board the Island Princess.
Covid-19 scuppered these plans: as the UK went into lockdown, Bogle and Rhatigan were forced to postpone their April 2020 wedding to 2021. Then they waited for Princess Cruises to cancel their trip.
“It was surprising how long it took them to cancel our cruise, considering how obvious it was that this wasn’t going to go away,” says Bogle.
“They upgraded us before they canceled it, which is the first time I’ve been upgraded for anything. We were there going, ‘This is really exciting, but it’s not going to happen.’ It just felt like they were just trying to almost shut their eyes to everything that was going on, rather than actually dealing with it.”
The voyage was canceled on May 27 and the couple are still waiting for their money back, but Bogle says she’s not been put off traveling with Princess.
“I doubt any other cruise line did any better, to be honest,” she says.
Bogle says she also sympathizes with cruise ship workers, she knows a crew member who is currently out of work and has had no income since March.
Bogle and Rhatigan are looking forward to cruising again in the future.
And like Beehler, Bogle says she would feel comfortable cruising without a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Even if there is a vaccine, not 100% of people would have it anyway,” she says. “So, it would make me feel happier if there was a vaccine, but I don’t know if it would stop me if I knew there wasn’t one.”
It helps, says Bogle, that she and her fiancé are both young and healthy – although she knows that doesn’t exempt them from catching Covid.
But what does concern her is that the cruise experience wouldn’t be the same with social distancing – and she doesn’t much fancy being locked down in a cabin.
For this reason, Bogle and Rhatigan are looking at other options for their rescheduled honeymoon in 2021. After all, she says, it’s still hard to know what position the UK or the travel industry will be in in twelve months’ time.
In the meantime, they’re looking forward to future cruise adventures.
“It was amazing experiencing different places,” says Bogle. “I love an excuse to dress up, and you can dress up fancy every night and enjoy amazing food.”
She recalls a relaxing day spent in Villefranche-sur-Mer, drinking wine overlooking the French Rivera and another day eschewing the crowds of Pisa and staying in the picturesque Italian port town of La Spezia.
“It’s not the cheapest way to travel, and I don’t think I’d do it every holiday. But it’s definitely a nice way to see somewhere you’ve not been before and sort of have it all planned for you as well. It’s properly relaxing.”
While many cruise fans are counting down the days until the industry restarts, Paul C Thornton, author of ‘The Joy of Cruising’, is remaining cautious.
Florida-based Thornton usually plans a couple of cruises a year, including an annual cruise vacation with his grandkids.
He’s also got a trip in the pipeline for this November, but he’s decided to cancel. Even if cruising’s restarted then, Thornton says he wouldn’t be comfortable traveling until there’s a vaccine.
“It’s a challenge, because I’m passionate about cruising,” he says. “I should be on a cruise as we speak.”
He says wearing a mask on board or social distancing wouldn’t worry him or impact his enjoyment of on-board experiences. He is just conscious that, at 63, catching Covid-19 could be debilitating.
“You’ll have to do a lot of things [on board] differently. I think I could get used to most of those things,” he says. “But I just really am worried about getting ill, at this stage in my life.”
Thornton says there have been moments during the past few months when he’s wondered if cruising wouldn’t survive this pause in operations.
But Thornton thinks loyal cruisers will return to the industry as soon as they feel comfortable.
“There was a lot of bad will, I think that that much of that is going to recede and I think things I think things will get back to normal. It’s going take some time, but I think cruising is going to be okay.”