Cruising The High Seas with the Norovirus
CRUISING THE HIGH SEAS WITH THE NOROVIRUS;
ROYAL CARIBBEAN LIBERTY OF THE SEAS
VOYAGE #3 June 2, 2007
The Savvy Old Lady
A few weeks ago Hubby and I decided to treat ourselves to a little quality fun time by cruising the high seas on an impromptu cruise. We have finally reached our semi-early retirement days that we have long awaited after raising five little cherubs to adulthood. Okay, so we are not completely finished raising them because from my viewpoint, we will continue parenting until the day we die. Guess that's just one of those little things that should have been in the instructional manual that we never received when they were born.
Fortunately for us, we live in southwestern Florida and are a mere two hour drive from three major cruise ship ports of call and while on any given day we usually with financial considerations of course, can take advantage of the really good specials (sometimes called "Happy Hour Specials") the cruise lines have for same week sailings. Let me tell you, these cruise ship price deals are steals! We have had suites with butler service for the same price some people pay for an inside cabin; however, that's another story for another blog.
On May 30th we booked a cruise aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Liberty of The Seas with a departure date of June 2 out of Miami, Florida with a destination of Western Caribbean ports. This was to be the third cruise since their inaugural sailing and the Liberty of The Seas is touted to be the most sophisticated, flashiest and largest cruise ship in the world. Who wouldn't be excited to sail on this most modern and mammoth cruise ship that advertised a passenger capacity from 4600 to 5000 guests plus crew? Ah, yes what a glorious time we expected on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of The Seas. On May 31st, the very next day we received a call from our friendly travel agent informing us that the Norovirus (or as some call it the Norwalk virus or the stomach flu or gastroenteritis) had struck Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Liberty of The Seas on the voyage that very week; just it's second regular voyage out. An estimated 175 passengers and 3 crew members became ill with Norovirus (or Norwalk virus or Norwalk-like virus). What an interesting time that must have been. Congratulations go out to the ship management and crew because it was our understanding from passengers we spoke with who had been on that second voyage that they all worked very very hard to keep this nasty little bug from spreading like wild-fire. The good news for us was that our cruise on Liberty of The Seas was not going to be canceled but the boarding time and departure time would be extended since they had to sanitize the entire ship from the Norovirus outbreak before any passengers were permitted to board. Instead of a normal 12:00PM boarding (Hubby and I have a priority status on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines' loyalty program so we could get on a bit earlier.) we were now looking at a 6:00PM boarding with a 10:00PM departure. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines had graciously offered to bus all their passengers over to the Miami Convention Center for a buffet lunch with more comfortable surroundings than the terminal had to offer. Now, most of us have heard and read about the outbreak of the Norwalk Virus (bet you didn't know it's named after Norwalk, Ohio where the virus was first identified in 1972) on several cruise ships in the past but to date I haven't really read any first hand accounts of what takes place when an outbreak of Norovirus occurs on a cruise ship.
First I wanted to get some information on just what this little Norovirus thing was. Thank God for Mr. Google! I soon found myself checking out the many sites, including the CDC's (Center for Disease Control), for information on Norovirus. Much to my surprise the scientific community has now lumped together all gastrointestinal viruses excluding influenza into their category of Norovirus. They can call it what they like but its nasty and has an incubation period of 12 to 24 hours and lasts any where from 48 to 72 hours and is HIGHLY contagious. The symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping. The high risk folks are the elderly and the young and dehydration is of major concern.
At 6:00PM we boarded Royal Caribbean Cruise lines Liberty of The Seas, and noticed the strong smell of Chlorine on board. We saw several crew members dressed in sterile-white decontamination jumpsuits, complete with those cute little booties and hair coverings (you know the ones you see on all the medical shows) wiping down anything that didn't move; all the banisters, hand rails, glass fixtures, elevator doors and counter tops that any passenger might have touched. We were told our rooms would not be ready until 9:00PM and to go directly to the top deck to the Windjammer Restaurant for a buffet dinner. Upon entering the Windjammer, it wasn't difficult to notice that half the serving stations were closed and plastic gloved crew members were the only ones permitted to serve the food from the trays, unfortunately, this lead to long lines and some quiet grumblings. Missing from the tables were the usual salt, pepper and catsup and once a passenger left a table you were not permitted to sit down until a crew member sanitized the area. I swear there were more sanitizing solutions and Purell on board than there were guests and crew. It did not take long to realize this was not going to be your normal wonderful cruise.
As we left Liberty of the Seas' Windjammer I found a seat at a poolside table on the upper deck to wait for 2 more hours to go to our cabin. I sat there listening to endless PA announcements requesting certain passengers to go to the medical department on board. One cryptic message even said if passenger So-and-So did not report the ship would not sail; pretty scary stuff! Apparently, certain passengers were not permitted to board the Liberty of The Seas if they showed signs of Norovirus prior to sailing. We heard that if this were the case Royal Caribbean refunded their fares. The difficult part of containing the Norovirus or Norwalk virus was that once folks figured out what was going on passengers fearing quarantine in their rooms or being sent home at some port of call were not reporting their illnesses to the medical staff. The ship's medical department's only choice was to use cabin stewards to check out the rooms and passengers for any signs of illness and were ordered to report anything that was suspicious immediately.
The sanitization procedure was extremely difficult and time consuming, especially, considering that this was one of the first times a ship of this size had to be completely sanitized while at sea. Bed linens, bed spreads, curtains all had to be laundered and mattresses were sanitized (not sure how but this must have been some job). Still kudos should be given to the Captain, crew and the CDC for the extreme measures that were taken to insure the well-being and safety of all the passengers. The crew was working fourteen to sixteen hour days without a break but always had a smile on their faces. It was only the discerned eye that noticed the complete exhaustion these people were experiencing.
Upon finally entering our cabin at 9 PM on the day of departure the strong stench of chlorine was present in the bathroom, it was if they had sprayed the entire room and upon entering it your eyes would burn. There were actually crystals of chlorine on all of the surfaces and my husband had to wash it all down so we could use the bathroom without choking. Our bed only had a sheet and there was no toilet paper or tissues, (Oops!) and only hand towels. I got the distinct impression that this was the rule. We heard that many cabins were not made up, even at this basic level, until after 10 PM. Many of the staterooms beds were still not made. We finally got towels and a blanket around 11:30PM and toilet paper and tissues were brought soon thereafter when my husband called for them.
For the next three days countless PA announcements, many by the Captain himself, were made, especially at meal times, about the necessity of washing your hands before each meal. Necessary, yes, but somehow a little disconcerting when you were eating your lunch and listening to someone talking on the PA about the symptoms of Norovirus and Norwalk like virus, namely diarrhea and vomiting. There were many areas that were closed for at least three to four days or the entire cruise. They included part of the Windjammer, the twenty-four hour pizza, sandwich and dessert bar. Some areas, such as Johnny Rockets, a wonderful hamburger and milk shake restaurant and the arcade (there was a special concern about children and teens and hand washing) were closed for the entire voyage. Passengers were not permitted to remove food from the Windjammer or dining rooms so we could not eat on the open decks or bring food to our rooms (room service did operate normally though after the second day). We were told the reason for this was so the crew would know where all the food was going. Well big surprise all the revenue center food and beverage outlets (coffee shop, Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop and the bars) on board permitted you to take food out. Hmmm, doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines was losing money on this cruise and I suppose that they had to make the revenue up for it somewhere.
Were passengers inconvenienced? Yes, but in fairness Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines gave each passenger a $100.00 credit on their account which could be used against any purchases on board or gratuities. Let's see now, $100 x 4995 passengers, yes the cruise was booked past the "comfortable" limit of 4600 advertised in the brochure that is almost a half a MILLION dollars in refunds, or at least on board credits. With the copious amounts of chlorine-bleach like sanitizer used many people found bleach stains on their clothing and Royal offered up to $50.00 in on-board credit for each item ruined (if the amount was more the claim needed to be submitted to RCI Central for approval after the cruise). The crew worked tirelessly sanitizing the rooms and open areas. Unfortunately, the sanitizing agent they used on the tables, chrome and glass on the ship left a noticeable film over everything. Although it was quite unattractive on a ship of this caliber, (and rather unappealing particularly on the restaurant tabletops) the teenagers found a way to add humor to the situation. Every morning standing at the elevator banks you could read messages from all the kids on board on the chrome elevator doors. The messages ranged from CLEAN ME PLEASE, Jimmy loves Janie, and a few that I won't repeat but sure gave me a chuckle. Could this be the first reported instance of graffiti on a cruise liner while at sea? This had to be another first for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and the Liberty of the Seas.
Even with the massive sanitization that was constantly being preformed the Norovirus still remained on board. The numbers from the previous week were 175 plus passengers and a hand full of crew members that were stricken with the virus and on our cruise we were told it was only 1.35% (about 67) of the passengers; I don't know if any crew became ill. Still, the week went by with constant reminders of a virus that could strike at any time and it left many with a feeling of uneasiness. The meat served on board was always over cooked and many meals seemed to be recycled. Truthfully, I don't know if it was due to the virus or if Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has now downgraded their food standards in lieu of the two "extra fee" revenue center restaurants on board. All I can tell you was when I sailed on the Enchantment of the Seas many years ago the food quality in the dining room and the level of service was equivalent to what their extra fee revenue-center restaurants are serving today.
A big question remains in my mind; should this ship have sailed on Saturday or, as Royal Caribbean did with its other mega ship The Freedom of the Seas when it was struck by the Norovirus recently, delay embarkation for a day or two to completely sanitize it. Was there a way that Royal Caribbean could have done something to give passengers the option not to go on this cruise and not suffer substantial ticket cost penalties I, and others, felt powerless, captive really, in this very uncomfortable, and un-relaxing environment. We really had no idea of the magnitude of inconvenience, discomfort and reduction in service that the on-board sanitization would cause. The sheer size of these mega ships and the number of people they hold make these virtually small cities. (I can't wait for the next generation of cruise liners to come). This was a no win situation for RCI but I fear it is one that is BOUND to repeat itself. In speaking with some of the supervisory staff on the ship they seemed to feel that there was plenty of protocol information in their procedure books on what to do in this sort of situation but what they don't have a good feel for is how to deal with customer service issues and deliver a good cruise experience while under such conditions; it may well be that this is impossible. Will these things hurt the cruise industry; will they have an adverse impact on mega-ship bookings? We will have to see.
Lastly, let me say that what I considered a mediocre cruise due to the circumstances was only made worse when at the last evening's entertainment, Ken Rush, the cruise director, stood on stage and literally berated passengers who he claimed were negative and complaining when in his opinion this was a fabulous cruise. Excuse me Mr. Rush, how much did you pay to take this exceptional cruise? I would have thought a man representing Royal Caribbean would have had more sensitivity to the concerns of families with children and the seniors on board. Oddly enough the week before, Mr. Rush was one of the three crew members that came down with the Norovirus. Fortunately for him he was not in the high risk category for the virus. Let's see what he has to say when he pays for the cruise and brings his parents, grandparents and own small children on board a ship that has Norovirus and feels uneasy the entire trip!
So what can you do if you find yourself in this situation, beside try and shoo away that dark-cloud over your head? Actually what should you do to protect yourself on ANY cruise? My best advice to all you cruisers out there is keep washing your hands when on board and watch your children very carefully. Keep a hand sanitizer product with you and use it between washings - it is NOT a substitute for washing but it helps keep potential infection down until you do wash your hands. Also having these hand sanitizers around serves as a good a reminder to keep washing those hands. Also, particularly you ladies, you might want to bring along some hand cream since the alcohol in the sanitizers dries out your skin regardless of what the labels may say!
Will this experience stop me from cruising...absolutely not! In fact Hubby and I are leaving this weekend on the Princess Cruise Line's Caribbean Princess for Eastern Caribbean destinations. You see we're always looking for more adventures and so should you. I must say that I will take all the necessary precautions to avoid the Norovirus but as "Old Blue Eyes" sang ..."THAT'S LIFE....BYE, BYE."