What it's like on a cruise ship during the pandemic: Reporter's Notebook

MAGGIE RULLI
·4 min read

I've covered plenty of cruise ship stories during the coronavirus pandemic for ABC. I was there at a port outside Rome for one of the first suspected COVID-19 cases on a cruise ship, and again in Japan for nearly two weeks standing beside the Diamond Princess cruise ship when more than 700 people were infected on board.

So it seems fitting that now, during the pandemic, would be the first time I ever board a cruise ship.

MSC Grandiosa became the first large cruise ship to set sail after the industry came to a halt in February. So far, they've been sailing passengers successfully and safely around the coast of Italy for the last five weeks.

On Sunday I showed up at the cruise terminal in Genoa with mixed expectations. As soon as I posted one photo online, the questions came pouring in. Is there still a buffet? What about off-shore excursions? Can you still go swimming?

PHOTO: Officers in protective gear enter the cruise ship Diamond Princess to transfer a patient to the hospital after the ship arrived at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Feb. 7, 2020. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters, FILE)
PHOTO: Officers in protective gear enter the cruise ship Diamond Princess to transfer a patient to the hospital after the ship arrived at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Feb. 7, 2020. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters, FILE)

So here it is -- all your burning cruising questions answered.

It all starts with testing. When you show up to the terminal you're met by health care workers in hazmat suits. And just like you would go through a metal detector before boarding, everyone has to get their COVID-19 test. Results take around 60 minutes, and the company says they can test about 300 people per hour.

The day we embark, at least two people are turned away after testing positive despite having no symptoms. It's an incredible feat, considering most counties are still struggling to test their populations.

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Once on board, I'm now part of one of the largest social bubbles in the world. Knowing everyone else around me has tested negative gives me a sense of security that I haven't felt on dry land in months. But testing is just one part of the safety program on board.

Faces masks and social distancing are mandatory in public areas. I've traveled to many vacation destinations covering stories during this pandemic -- and on board Grandiosa I see more people properly wearing masks than I've seen in any city. The wardrobe for the poolside exercise dance? Bathing suits and masks. The all-white party on Monday night? Cruise wear with masks. Kids in the teen game room? Video games and masks. Indoors and outdoors, masks are everywhere.

PHOTO: A picture taken in the northern Italian port of Genoa on Aug. 16, 2020, shows the MSC Grandiosa cruise liner leaving the port pulled by a little boat after six-and-half months of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: A picture taken in the northern Italian port of Genoa on Aug. 16, 2020, shows the MSC Grandiosa cruise liner leaving the port pulled by a little boat after six-and-half months of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images, FILE)

On board, there are frequent cleanings and temperature checks every day. The air indoors is 100% fresh air and none is recycled. The medical facilities have extra doctors, ventilators, and isolation units. And those cruise bracelets you wear normally to buy drinks -- they're now used to track people's movements and contact trace.

But the two things everyone wants to know about are the buffet and on-shore excursions.

Yes, there is still a buffet! It just looks a little different. You can no longer serve yourself. Everything -- even your glass of water and the salt shaker -- is handed to you.

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On-shore excursions are now meticulously planned. Temperatures are checked when you leave, seats are assigned on a bus that is sanitized daily, and no one is allowed to leave the group. Even your guide and bus driver have been tested to ensure the social bubble extends to land as well.

Even with these extreme precautions in place, nothing can be 100% guaranteed. MSC's executive chairman says there is a contingency plan in place in case there is a positive case on board. It involves extra on-board medical staff, facilities, and isolation chambers, as well as health agreements with each local port.

In this world of uncertainty, we're all living with a certain amount of risk. But the precautions in place on board the ship were some of the most thorough I've seen anywhere over the last couple of months.

And in a twist of fate, I wonder if world leaders may soon be turning to the cruise industry to learn about the best and safest way to reopen cities.

What it's like on a cruise ship during the pandemic: Reporter's Notebook originally appeared on abcnews.go.com