Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I Worked Onboard a Cruise Ship and Watched Coronavirus Unravel the Industry

The latest in our series about how this pandemic affects our lives, our loved ones, our work, and our way of life

Life in the Time of Coronavirus is a new GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.

OOrdinarily, on the day a cruise ship embarks from the port, there’s an energetic buzz among crew members and passengers. But walking onboard this time around immediately felt eerie. It felt like the beginning of the end of an era. The ship was a ghost town; we set sail at less than half capacity.

I have spent almost all of the last year and a half living and working aboard luxury cruise ships. I am a pianist and vocalist, and on ships, I perform shows to entertain our guests at sea. It’s not uncommon to see our travel itineraries intersect with regions as they weather major disasters: the worst wildfire season in Alaska to date, historic swells and 191 mph winds in Hawaii, devastating bushfires that scorched New South Wales, or a fatal volcano eruption in New Zealand. Though we could often watch these events unfold just miles away, we were always relatively immune in our floating tin can. That was until the coronavirus outbreak.

I was scheduled to join my latest ship assignment on March 11. Just two days earlier, the State Department had released a statement warning Americans against taking cruise vacations after passengers on several different ships tested positive for Covid-19. That was the “oh shit” moment for me. But I also knew that people would still embark on their trips. Cruise fans are often intense die-hards. Federal warnings wouldn’t be enough to derail their plans.

Many did stay home though. Onboard, there were no lines. There was an increased presence of hand sanitizer dispensers. Nobody could serve any of their own food. However, on a cruise ship, these aren’t necessary tell-tale indicators of the apocalypse. Norovirus outbreaks happen from time to time onboard, and while contagious, the cases are contained in a similar manner and then we move on.

There was obviously a big elephant in the room this time around. Ports around the world were denying entry to cruise ships. Entertainers and employees at that point were already banned from transferring from ship to ship. Crew members swapped stories about our friends quarantined on one of our sister ships, which had transformed into a floating reprise of Animal House, drifting around the middle of the ocean, passenger-less, looking for a dock to call home. But they were a rare example — not the norm.

Working at sea, we often become so desensitized to the weight of things happening in the outside world, from terrorist threats to natural disasters to garbage music being released. I didn’t check my phone for 24 hours following embarkation, but when I did, I almost wished I hadn’t. A part of me naïvely believed the cruise ship industry was going to get through it — that a conglomerate so huge couldn’t be taken out so swiftly. But then one by one, major cruise lines started pulling the plug by canceling future trips.

With hundreds of ships still stranded at sea, we were uncertain whether we’d find another port to take us in

Out at sea, I was glued to the TV on Friday afternoon as Donald Trump declared a national State of Emergency. I had been unofficially warned that morning that my cruise line, one of the last to hold out, was about to announce a suspension. Then right before my first show that evening, the captain confirmed that prognosis. He assured us that we’d complete our voyage, perhaps with a few deviations from the original itinerary. The cruise was scheduled to conclude on March 27. But that quickly changed too. With hundreds of ships still stranded at sea, we were uncertain whether we’d find another port to take us in. But we ended up docking in Puerto Vallarta the following morning, and by that afternoon, we learned that that’s where our journey would end; all guests would be disembarking the following day.

I was lucky I was able to even get home while I still could. As my Uber pulled away from the shipyard, I called my dad crying. It was actually over.

Last week at this time, I was looking forward to the adventure of a lifetime, and now I’m home — not even at my own home, but my parents’ house, updating my LinkedIn profile. Like so many people, my entire life has been turned upside down in a single week, with little indication as to when, and if, it will ever return to the way it was.

It’s a scary thing when everything you’ve wanted and worked for is swept away in the blink of an eye. Dreams are on hold. Lives are on hold. Embarkations were forecasted to resume around mid-April, but I highly doubt that will happen. More and more countries are banning cruise ships, at least temporarily, and the plot thickens by the hour.

The strangest part of ship life is always returning home after a contract; you lie down in your own bed for the first time in months and think, “Did that really just happen?” Secretly, I’m still hoping I’ll wake up from this nightmare.

Pianist. Songwriter. Music education advocate. Miss World America Massachusetts. IG: @alissamustomusic

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