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Cruising in the midst of a crisis: my experience with managing coronavirus panic out at sea
Forsyth County News reporter Sabrina Kerns went on a cruise with her family March 7-14 as the world adjusted to a new normal with the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Jessie R. Nunn)

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Families all over the U.S. for weeks have stocked up on supplies, started to bunker down in their homes and readied themselves for what is likely going to be a long and frankly scary pandemic. My family and I, on the other hand, made the curious decision to go on a week-long cruise.

It sounds more than a little bit crazy, but we had paid for and planned this cruise months ago, unaware of the novel coronavirus that would later strike and change the world. The vacation into the beautiful and sunny Caribbean was meant simply to be a chance for us all to come together as a family and have fun.

My mom, my brother, my sister, her husband and I had been counting down the days until the cruise, excited for some travel and adventure, and we didn’t truly talk with each other about the gravity of the health crisis, and all of the headlines, until the day before we were set to embark. 

Suddenly it felt like we were making a mistake, worried not entirely because we thought we might get sick, but because we saw that the nation, along with our family and friends, may no longer welcome us back home.

We were scared.

Forsyth County News reporter Sabrina Kerns spent a week on a cruise with her family from March 7-14 as the world responded to rapid developments with the novel coronavirus (Photo by Jessie R. Nunn)

My mom called the cruise line to ask about canceling after we all gathered at her house that day, but they assured her that the health of its passengers was of high importance to the cruise line — and that she would not be getting her money back. 

They tried to sooth our worries, telling my mom that the virus would die in the tropical weather of the Caribbean (misinformation we later found out was purposefully spread by cruise line sales managers to help sell to clients), and so, with a little bit of hesitation, we headed to Orlando. 

When we arrived in Port Canaveral, I started to feel more energized at the sheer sight of the ship. It got me through roadblocks that should have been more worrying: the authorities wearing medical masks taking everyone’s temperatures as they walked through the door and the papers I signed promising that I had not come into contact with anyone infected with COVID-19 and had not travelled to China or certain European countries within the last two weeks.

As soon as we got through security and onto the ship, everything felt much more relaxed. Everywhere we turned, people were enjoying themselves, cracking jokes about the coronavirus and making the most out of their vacation. The virus was hard to forget about, but it felt further away in the relaxing daze that the cruise ship offered. 

Even staying sanitized and clean felt fun. Anyone walking into or out of the restaurants on the ship was greeted by a crew member with a beaming smile. “Washy, washy!” they said, squirting sanitizer onto everyone’s hands from a clear plastic bottle. The cruise line called them their “washy, washy team,” and it was both cute and funny seeing many of the passengers following in their footsteps, yelling out “washy, washy!” whenever it came time to wash their hands.

Our situation did start to feel a little more serious after our second night on the ship. After a day of games and fun, my family decided to grab a quick dinner at the buffet on board. Previously completely self-serve food, we walked up to the buffet to find that all of the spoons and tongs had been turned around and all of the drink stations blocked off. The crew was now serving the food and drinks and passengers weren’t able to touch anything that wasn’t handed to them by a crew member.

The next day, the cruise director made an announcement directly into our staterooms explaining that the cruise line made the change across all of their ships to help with cleanliness and sanitation on board.

This announcement created a spark of fear in our minds that the news later fanned into an uncontrollable flame. In the week that we were away from home, March 7-14, the entirety of Italy went into lockdown, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, Georgia saw its first COVID-19 death, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, schools all over decided to close their doors and switch to online learning, even the cruise line we were currently on announced that it would be temporarily closing down.

My sister, who works as a photographer, started getting emails from her employer about shoots being pushed back. Her husband got a vague text message from his boss: “I need to know where you’ve been.” His family had separate conversations about the cruise, eventually letting him know he wouldn’t be seeing them for the next two weeks.

The panic that comes with being far from home during such a huge crisis and being unsure about the future of your work and your family is a feeling like none other. My family is very fortunate, however, and we have all made it back home in good health. My sister’s husband and my brother are both back at work, my sister is keeping herself busy with at-home projects, and my mom and I are working from home, doing our best to keep some distance for the sake of everyone’s health and safety. 

Looking back on it now, although we ended up out at sea with thousands of strangers packed onto a ship in the middle of a pandemic, I don’t regret that week that I got to spend with my family. In the spaces between worrying, I had loads of fun, visiting countries I’d never seen before and spending time with the people I love most.

Coming back home and adjusting to the crisis has been a huge change, but like everyone else, I’m still working to take it all in. For now, I am simply taking to heart some advice my mom shared with us soon after getting back home: “Be careful and be sure to washy, washy.”