I was sitting down to dinner with my family when the alert came. Outside the sun-bleached volcanic rocks of Coco Cay began to roll by, sparsely pegged with thin palm trees curling with the wind. They'd already herded us off of the island and back onto the ship, having waited until our final vacation day was over and we were headed back to Miami before dropping the bad news on us. You know, because it was too late for us to panic and try (somehow) to avoid leaving the island that had marked the final stop of our seven day cruise.
The message came through Royal Caribbean’s app, hitting all of our phones at the same time. It informed us that Royal Caribbean was suspending all cruises in the wake of the coronavirus spreading through the United States. We’d end up being the last passengers for a minimum of thirty days on the world’s largest cruise ship, The Symphony of the Seas.
When we left for a seven day Caribbean cruise at the beginning of March, the only reported cases of coronavirus were in California. The messages coming out of the US Government were at best mixed, but we were naively confident we’d be safe. To my knowledge, we are still safe, but as our week wore on in the isolation of the Eastern Atlantic with no WiFi unless you paid out the you-know-what for it, things began to change aboard the Symphony of the Seas.
I’ve been on three cruises in my life. This one started no differently than the rest, with vacationers leading their families out of the terminal and onto the Royal Promenade with tropical drinks already in hand and smiles permanently stretching their faces. As the bustle spread out and began to do what Americans do best, consume, I checked into my room with my brother and we celebrated our first dry vacation together with a soda toast. Were it not for my sobriety, I doubt I would have been so tuned in to the other guests aboard the ship, because as the traditional horn blast signaled our departure from the Port of Miami, things were already getting worse on the mainland and it was set to bleed into our vacation.
Days one and two were spent on the ocean, taking a roundabout route along the coast of Cuba. This route was not on the original itinerary. While the cruise director and captain made regular announcements that the change was the result of weather, I couldn’t help wondering if they knew something we didn’t about the destinations we were set to visit. As I walked the ship, pacing to keep my mind off the bars I’d pass every twenty feet, I began to pick up on similar conversations. Though there was no sign, at least immediately, that anyone was concerned with the virus, information was being passed in private and concerns were bubbling up. You could read it in people's body language, you could see it in the way people held their breaths in crowded elevators... you could smell it in the sanitizer stations at the threshold of every doorway.
When we hit our first port at St. Kitts, it was obvious that many cruise-goers were taking precautions and not leaving the boat. Though I didn’t stay behind, I can understand their trepidation as a trans-Atlantic cruise ship full of Europeans docked beside us. There I witnessed a direct connection to a side of the world where coronavirus had been spreading for months and realized how naïve I was to assume only American tourists were visiting the Caribbean. Still, my general feelings of imperviousness kept me out and about, because why not? I’m young and invincible and have nothing to worry about… right?
The staggering lack of animal protection laws in St. Kitts was in our faces the moment we got off the boat. Literally. Leashed "vervet" monkeys are used on the island to solicit money for photos by those who've taken the time to train them. The majority of these poor animals were leashed along sidewalks (obviously untrained and neglected) as a means to draw curious tourists into jewelers and various duty free stores. One of them latched desperately onto my neice, by the hair. Another decided to chew on my shoelaces.
I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure virus communicability between primates and humans is no differnet than human-to-human. These desperate, neglected animals would reach out and grab anything and anyone they could. I'll leave it at that.
Day three ended with the Symphony of the Seas (which dwarfed its British counterpart in St. Kitts like Goliath casting his shadow over David) backing out of port and cruising along toward St. Thomas. I watched every sunset on that ship, and as we left St. Kitts I took a Diet Coke and Red Bull down to the bow of the ship and snapped pictures of a cloudscape so striking that the clouds themselves seemed ablaze. I must have snapped a hundred pictures before the alerts started going off on my phone. Messages from friends and family talking about how events were being cancelled back home in Maine, that people were voluntarily isolating themselves, and that the number of recorded cases of coronavirus had exploded across nearly all fifty states.
Conversation around the ship that night was a mixture of alcohol-fueled excitement over the events of the day and talk of things back on the mainland. I walked the multi-tiered sundeck giving away copies of my books and enjoying the stark beauty of the natural world around me while filing away everything I heard. Some people talked about staying in their rooms and using room service until we docked, others flippantly dismissed the virus as liberal propaganda and seemed intent on not sanitizing at all in protest, while the more level-headed spoke only of skipping shore excursions for the remainder of the trip.
Still, the general mood on the ship was one of overarching joviality. Even as whispers of the world we know changing back home reached our ears, bringing so much more than pause, we tried not to let it tarnish our vacation. It’s so easy these days, with social media and the internet, to get swept up in a mob. The problem is that this is no longer a physical mob but a digital one, a logical one, though I use that word very loosely. I arrived at the position that I’d been downplaying the virus too much and focusing too narrowly on the near-certainty of my own survival. I’d failed to acknowledge in any serious way the idea of being a carrier and passing it along to others who are much more susceptible. From there on out my opinions of the virus grew much more serious.
In fact, in our isolation, all of our opinions on the virus changed. The operative word here is isolation. I can’t stress enough how removed we were from the world. As day four found us waking up to the ship docking in St. Thomas, I hit the sundeck and began snapping pictures, but instead of seeing the beauty of the rolling mountains and the houses perched precariously along their sharp, tree-crowded slopes, I saw instead a port that received tens of thousands of cruise-goers from all over the world every single day. Though I decided to disembark with my family, I did so with reservations that I played off in my head as paranoia. I grew cognizant of every surface I touched while we navigated the myriad diamond stores butting up to the crowd-swollen streets, and I began to watch the behavior of others more closely. I saw people trying on jewelry that was then returned to display cases without sanitizing. I saw people stepping out of single stall bathrooms without washing their hands. I saw all kinds of things I would never have noticed were it not for this virus, which was updated to a global pandemic that very day.
This was when the shift in mood on the ship grew palpable. As we cruised out of St. Thomas, the boat engines kicking up sediment that muddied the turquoise water like dust caught in a slow-moving wind, again I set out to walk the ship, giving away my books and listening to snippets of conversation. Now people were talking about schools being cancelled when they arrived home, speaking somberly about the cases now reported in their home states, and clanged glasses in spirited toasts celebrating the cancellation of work and the apparent elongation of their vacations. I’d already re-enabled certain apps on my phone that I’d sworn to stay clear of in order to force myself to relax. CNN and Fox News (I like to get an even mix, often to my own peril) were still spinning the coronavirus to their political agendas despite the altruism they tried to project. Make no mistake: the politicization of this virus on both sides has done more damage to this country than the coronavirus ever could on its own.
Even as the news spread of the goings-on back home, the cruise continued. Our second-to-last day was spent on the water, cruising toward Royal Caribbean’s private island, CoCo Cay. I camped out by the pool, once more giving away my books (and wondering with certain irony if I was inadvertently stocking others with the virus in the process – I have no symptoms as of this writing), and conversing with anyone who’d sit and speak with me. I met a gentleman from Arizona, and we spoke at length about the politicization of the virus, the dangers of misinformation in an age where everything on the net is assumed to be factual, and the situations we were returning to. He told me schools were already closed through the end of the month, leaving me flabbergasted. Hours later I received notifications that the schools in my home town were closing down as well. What’s more, many of my family members (including myself) were beginning to receive messages from our employers expressing concerns with our returning to work.
This virus I’d admittedly lampooned and shared memes about, which I’d posted about sarcastically all throughout my trip as a means of coping with the fear building in me… this virus was shutting the world down while we wined and dined in luxury, completely unaware that our cruise would be the last cruise Royal Caribbean would launch for the next thirty days.
I’ve read it could be as much as sixty. I've entertained the idea that it might be forever.
The last day we trolled into CoCo Cay, and my family and I found a spot at the edge of the clear Atlantic waters. We busied ourselves reading books, playing in the sand with the kids, and of course (for everyone but me and my brother, anyway) drinking everything alcoholic. The mood was one of detached contentment. In my case it was because I chose to leave my phone back on the ship and venture out with only a book and a notepad for my observations. Oddly enough, I didn’t stumble across a single conversation about the coronavirus that day. We enjoyed the sun with only an occasional break in the clouds and a lone rain shower. The day was honestly great. I feel like in our way we all knew that this was our last moment in the sun, as it were; the last dying gasp before our vacation delivered us back to a suffering world.
It was a great day.
I returned to the ship wearing a smile, but after showering and returning to my nightly routine of pacing the upper decks, I found new conversation was spreading. Already there were rumors that the Symphony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship (no joke) would not be leaving port again when we docked. What’s more, the entire fleet was apparently set for a long hiatus. This was all corroborated in its own way by the announcements by Viking and Norwegian the previous day that they were voluntarily suspending operations. My family and I covered the gamut of coronavirus conversation and speculation before heading down to dinner in the Main Dining Room and watching as CoCo Cay slowly slipped away, surrendering green tropics for the dark churn of Atlantic water. Our phones buzzed simultaneously the moment we started moving. Cruise operations were voluntarily and indefinitely suspended.
The rumors were confirmed.
My first thought, unnecessarily panicked as it was: I could be one of the last few people ever to go on a cruise. My next thought: I have to journal all of this before the feelings fade. And so I did, and the result is what you’ve just read. I’m posting this from far above New England as a jet carries me and most of my family home. Workers we encountered at the airports ranged in mood from politely resigned to unnecessarily hostile as we checked our bags, passed security, and boarded the plane. The entire experience this morning was a shit show of epic proportions, and felt like the last yawn of an industry soon to shutter itself just like Royal Caribbean. At least temporarily.
I journaled long into the night, alone for the most part with my thoughts. I won't deny that my earlier dismissal of the coronavirus was a mistake, and I was well aware of it as I sat on the moonlit sundeck, buffetted by the Atlantic wind, watching the deck workers drain the pools and wrap the slides in netting. It was like they were embalming a corpse. Yet the next day we were up and off the ship with only the slight delay of an authentication server going down for 15 minutes. Then it was back into a world that had been weathering coronavirus in earnest for a full week while we were off, isolated. Personally, I walked off that ship ready to get home and take care of my daughter, to isolate and dig in if we had to.
The surreal experience of being on a cruise ship as the coronavirus exploded on Mainland USA is something I’ll never forget. It has conjured feelings in me that I’ve never experienced and, frankly, don’t care to again. I’d meet the gaze of a stranger in transit or while we were laid over, and on most of them I see a healthy, guarded distrust of everything. We’re all carrying this ominous, malformed fear home with us because when we left everything seemed fine and under control. Now the home we’re returning to feels not so much foreign as alien.
It was my goal to have this written, edited, and posted before I landed so as not to taint the perspective I currently have on the matter. Logic all but screams in my mind that everything will be fine, that my former feelings of imperviousness to the virus simply because I’m young are still largely valid, but now we’re talking about isolating ourselves from my grandmother and working from home as much as possible, at least for a couple weeks. What we need to remember through all of this is that, although the recovery rate far eclipses the death toll (Google it), the most responsible thing we can do right now is isolate in effort to contain the virus. We haven’t entered the end times, but this does spell certain doom for others who are older or have conditions leaving them more susceptible to its effects. It’s because of this that we can’t downplay its severity like right wing news wants us to, but we also can’t let it work us into a frenzy in order to widen the void of leadership and direction we have coming out of the White House as left wing news would like.
No, the best thing we can do as Americans is something we’re already well-practiced in: focus on yourself. Isolate if you can, listen to the news, treat the virus with the gravity it deserves… or don’t. But for the love of God remember that this is so much bigger than you and your ability to survive. I am far from an expert on the coronavirus, but I sure as hell have opinions on it, and just like the rest of you I tend to get swept up in the current of information flowing across our screens. We are more connected than ever before, in every way, and that’s both good and bad.
Remember to consider the sources of your news, and when in doubt, form your opinions on the WHO and CDC websites (linked below)… not from the talking points on politically motivated news networks.
See you soon, Ogunquit, Maine. I hope.
Earl Yorke is the author of Topaz and Fresh Water From Ben Gile Pond. His vampire-esque series "The Bloodlines of Rollinsford" is out now with book one: The Estafru Messiah.