The Corner

Why Cruise Ship Vaccination Requirements Are Different from Those of Other Institutions

MS Rotterdam off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., April 2, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

No, a vaccine passport requirement wouldn’t make sense in a lot of situations in American life. But a cruise ship is different.

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A huge part of life is drawing distinctions.

This requires observation, foresight for likely consequences, and judgment — and even then, you can still get it wrong. This is hard. People who are really smart in one aspect of life can be really dumb in another part of life. Brilliant scientists can struggle with relationships, enormously empathetic people can struggle to manage their finances, and financial geniuses can find themselves experiencing constant friction with others. Experience can often help inform our judgment, but we can also jump to the wrong conclusion based upon experience.

One-size-fits-all approaches often backfire – sometimes quickly, sometimes eventually. For example, should you tell your boss what you really think? It depends. If your boss has a not-so-great idea that he’s in love with, it makes sense to tread carefully and do what you can to soften the blow of any criticism. If the consequences of the idea are small enough, it may well be worth holding your tongue. But if your boss is harassing others or attempting to embezzle from the company, you sure as heck should stand up for yourself and not quietly go along.

Life is very messy, and people understandably are bothered by this. They wish life could be simple. And many politicians (and media personalities and some self-help gurus and con men and other folk) tell people that indeed, the answers in life are simple. “All of our problems are because of those people over there.” “This one diet will make you thin.” “This one weird trick will eliminate your debt.” All of these promises and pledges and slogans are an assurance that don’t worry, you don’t really need to attempt the messy, complicated, and frustrating process of attempting to draw distinctions.

Many Americans, particularly of the conservative stripe, loathe the notion of some sort of national pass card required to go about our daily lives.  We instantly flash back to every World War Two movie where the SS officers get on the train and not-so-politely demand, “your papers, please.” Most Americans recoil at the idea of having to show proof of vaccination to just live their life, and the fact that it’s a little cardboard card, filled out by hand in some situations and easily forged, makes the proposal seem rather ridiculous.

But cruise ships are different. (Yes, yes, insert “Ahoy!” NR cruise jokes here.) Cruises place lots of people in a tight space that they can only intermittently leave, using the same doorknobs, handrails, elevator buttons, etc. Travelers on cruises usually eat together, three meals a day, and pre-pandemic, many meals on cruises were served buffet-style. And cruisers are usually all together for anywhere from three to 20some days. Even mild disease outbreaks on ships like norovirus or flu can cause huge problems.

As the CDC summarized, before the COVID-19 pandemic…

Cruise ship travel presents a unique combination of health concerns. Travelers from diverse regions brought together in the often crowded, semi-enclosed environments onboard ships can facilitate the spread of person-to-person, foodborne, or waterborne diseases. Outbreaks on ships can be sustained for multiple voyages by transmission among crew members who remain onboard or by persistent environmental contamination. Port visits can expose travelers to local vectorborne diseases. The remote location of the travelers at sea means that they may need to rely on the medical capabilities and supplies available onboard the ship for extended periods of time, and cruise travelers and their physicians should be aware of ships’ medical limitations and prepare accordingly. Certain groups, such as pregnant women, the elderly, or those with chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised, require special consideration when considering cruise travel.

As ominous as that sounds, the CDC noted, “From 2008 through 2014, rates of [gastro-intestinal] illness among passengers on voyages lasting 3–21 days decreased from 27.2 to 22.3 cases per 100,000 travel days.”

Cruise ships have to treat any potential outbreak of a contagious disease as a huge potential problem, because they’ve got less margin for error than a stadium or concert hall or other large gathering. After a big concert, everyone goes home. After a big gathering on the cruise ship, everyone goes back to their rooms… and then keeps interacting with each other for the remainder of the cruise. Every infection turns into a race between the crew’s disinfection efforts and the virus’ spread.

A wiser conservative movement and Republican Party would recognize that proof of vaccination is probably unnecessary and silly to go to the dry cleaner, or a restaurant, or even to go into a stadium. But cruise ships are different, because of the higher risk of a rapid spread among a large group of people — people who are, in many cases, getting up there in years and who may have their own preexisting health conditions. And it’s higher risk of a rapid spread among a large group of people who are getting up there in years and who may have their own preexisting health conditions, who have temporarily limited access to medical facilities.

A vaccine passport that makes no sense in other aspects of American life, and that would represent an unacceptable infringement upon American freedom, makes sense for cruisegoers. Keep in mind, most cruises require an actual passport, and some other countries require updated non-COVID vaccinations as is. Requiring a COVID-19 vaccination is not substantively different from existing passport and vaccination requirements.

But few people thrive in this world by telling others, “this is complicated, and we have to draw distinctions.”

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