The gangway is up, the aloha shirts are on and, just as it does every Friday, Carnival's Fascination pulls away from the Miami pier for a weekend jaunt to the Bahamas. Only this time, there's a new departure ritual to observe, along with a new sundry nestled into many of the beach bags with Coppertone and Blistex.
"All right everybody, put out your hands!" cries passenger Ashlei Lockhart above the pool-side calypso beat of the Lido Deck. "It's time to sanitize!"
With a good-time whoop, Lockhart's friends put down their Technicolor cocktails and gather 'round for a squirt from her bottle of Purell Senses antibacterial lotion. A bit of rub-rub-rub and a little "Where's-my-drink?" and it's back to the merrymaking. These cruisers are determined, by God, to have fun on the Fun Ship, infectious disease notwithstanding.
Cruisers are a hardier lot than travel snobs give them credit for. Their holiday fun may not often include bagging peaks in the Himalayas or sipping yak milk in Mongolia. But these rum-and-sun devotees have been fearless in the face of the plague-let of flu-like infections that has struck the South Florida cruise industry in recent weeks.
Holland America's Amsterdam and Disney's Magic both canceled sailings after almost a thousand people fell ill to what is thought to be a strain of the Norwalk virus, a gastrointestinal bug that causes a day or two of wicked vomiting and diarrhea. And on its two trips previous to this one, the Fascination itself returned with an unwelcome manifest of passengers and crew infected by a Norwalk-like outbreak: 203 sick on the previous weekend's Bahamas itinerary, and two dozen on the four-day trip that ended this early December morning. But despite confronting some dire dockside posters and handouts, only about 20 passengers accepted Carnival President Bob Dickinson's offer of full refunds to the squeamish, while 2,040 elected to sail.
"My only fear was that they would cancel the trip," says Lockhart, here with a few hundred other revelers on a "Wet Winter Weekend" organized by an Atlanta radio station. "I just plan to wash everything I touch and to drink a lot! I don't think the flu could exist in an alcohol-saturated system."
That seems to be a common theory. Over the next three days, the signature indulgences of Caribbean ship life -- booze, buffets, bingo -- will continue unabated, even as people wait to see if another wave of infections will strike. But behind the scenes, this Fascination outing is anything but ordinary.
Boarding is delayed. The Fascination had landed before 8 a.m., and a crew of quickly hired contractors was aboard steaming carpets and fumigating cabins even before the last of the passengers had debarked. On the pier, the incoming crowd files slowly through the check-in procedure and waits for their ship to come clean. A woman with "Booty" written in rhinestones on her left rear jeans pocket and "Licious" on the right cheek leans alternately against a holding-area rail and her boyfriend until Carnival sounds the all-clear.
Almost at once, after the initial scramble for staterooms, a line forms for the pool-side buffet, even though it's almost 4 p.m and some passengers have dinner assignments less than two hours away. (Never saying no to a meal is a first principle of cruising.) A Trinadadian quartet by the whirlpool cranks up with an apt anthem, Bob Marley's "Three Birds" -- "Don't worry about a thing." And in fact, nobody does seem worried.
But they do notice something different about this self-serve buffet -- you're not allowed to serve yourself. Crew members in plastic gloves scoop the food onto your plate at your direction, blocking the virus, yes, but playing hell with the natural order of the steam table. There's confusion as guests pass their plates back and forth to the servers. One woman -- wearing a white T-shirt that reads "Mothers-Daughters-Sisters Bonding Cruise" -- complains about the delay to her identically dressed friends. But most people wait placidly.
"They are working extremely hard on this, that's obvious," says Stella Reed, a retiree from Naples, Fla., vacationing on her sixth cruise of the year and her fourth on the Fascination. She and her companion, William Vena -- who looks a great deal like Walter Matthau -- have been on board since last Monday on back-to-back trips. "We could see the differences just like that, especially with the serving of the food," says Vena. "And I've noticed there's always somebody in the bathrooms wiping things down with Clorox."
It's not Clorox, it's a formidable microbicide called Mikro-Bac, and the Fascination is drinking it by the case load. As Reed and Vena nurse pre-dinner drinks at the casino bar, two young Lithuanian blondes wearing identical white blouses and black skirts glide by, each carrying a spray bottle of Mikro-Bac in one hand and wiping the nearby hand rails with a cloth in the other. They disappear around the curve of the Promenade Deck like a two-car trolley. Before last week they were bartender trainees -- two of 30 students in the fleetwide bartender college that Carnival maintains on the Fascination. Now they are part of the ship's 'round-the-clock disinfection detail.
"We're wiping down everything," says Hotel Director Brenda Richardson, "ceilings, walls, door handles, elevator buttons, pens. We've washed all the bedspreads. We've washed the poker chips. We're cleaning the same things over and over and over, and we've been doing that 24 hours a day since the outbreak first began."
Down in a lower deck holding area, Richardson points out a long hillock of old mattresses being swapped for new ones. And along the corridor in the crew mess, some of the serving tables have been emptied and pushed unused against the wall. With so much extra labor needed to ladle out buffet food around the ship, there isn't enough manpower to staff the crew's soup and salad bars. And labor-intensive grill items like hamburgers are off the crew menu too, for now at least. No one seems to mind. "Everyone is pitching in amazingly," says Richardson.
(Passengers, meanwhile, have lost no actual foods, with one exception: ice cream cones. It's now bowls and spoons for soft serve in the Coconut Bar and Grill. Get over it.)
A few yards away from the crew mess is an elevator lobby outside the ship's infirmary. A week earlier, this space had served as a temporary triage area as dozens of suddenly ill passengers began showing up with acute vomiting and diarrhea.
"We actually have a drill for this sort of situation," Richardson says. "We practice it." When it became clear in those early morning hours that an infectious outbreak was unfolding, the crew scrambled. As each case came in, a nurse would alert housekeeping and a crew would immediately clean and sanitize the passenger's cabin. Each patient or his family was quizzed on where he had been and what he had eaten, and a food and beverage manager set up a quick database on a laptop to track and analyze the answers.
"Food poisoning is always your first thought when you go over a certain number of cases of 'Mr. D,' " says Richardson. But as the ship's doctor and three nurses consulted via satellite with Carnival headquarters and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it quickly became apparent that these symptoms were more likely a virus than food poisoning.
Now, a week later, cruise life is unfolding more or less normally. At the lifeboat drill, fear of the virus doesn't stop people from playfully tooting on the safety whistles attached to their life vests; the two main dining rooms are steadily pumping out their 10,000 meals a day; the 24-hour pizzeria does a steady business; the beeping cacophony of the casino is at a permanent crescendo.
At the captain's welcoming cocktail party, however, one thing is missing from the receiving line: the captain. Before the outbreak, Capt. Andrea Viacava would grip-and-grin with picture-snapping guests. But tonight -- so his handshake won't become a one-stop clearinghouse for cross-contamination -- he listens to the excellent jazz orchestra at a table with senior officers until he's introduced on stage.
"Thank you for cruise with us," he says in rich Italian tones.
He doesn't mention the virus outbreak. Neither does Cruise Director Matt Goodwin in any of his many high-octane addresses to the ship. Aside a detailed handout on procedures to avoid infection (mainly, wash your hands at least once an hour), it just doesn't come up.
"Once they've got the basic information, there's no point in starting out on anything negative," says Goodwin, taking a break from the talent show tryouts. He's a well-dressed Englishman of the Dudley Moore variety, with a chipperness that seems far more contagious than any virus. "The strange thing is, I've not had one single passenger ask me anything about it. Not one. I'm amazed, because they do ask the stupidest questions."
Not even the comedian brings it up at the scantly attended midnight comedy act, following the musical revue and the singles mixer. (Maybe some jokes about Mr. D would have gone over better than his Lorena Bobbitt routine -- delivered well past its expiration date. So far the only person dying on this cruise is the comedian.)
In the Diamonds Are Forever Lounge -- one of a half-dozen bars and nightclubs lining the boisterous block of the Promenade Deck known as Hollywood Boulevard -- the disco is a thumping, flashing mosh pit. Next door, the blackjack tables are jammed, and dozens of gamblers are arm wrestling with the slot machines. At 1 a.m. the crowds are still growing in the entertainment districts. Meanwhile, high up on Deck 12 in the now-shuttered spa, William Colon, a cleaning contractor from Miami, moves through the gym and the massage rooms wearing a respirator and safety goggles. He's carrying a fogging machine that looks like a carpenter's toolbox with a vacuum hose attached. It billows an acrid fug of diluted Mikro-Bac.
"This stuff even kills HIV," he says respectfully, reading the label with bleary eyes. He also worked on disinfecting the Holland America and Disney ships and has had less than six hours of sleep in the last three days. He'll be up all night again.
It's a routine that will continue night after night. While the passengers are on shore in Nassau -- haggling in the straw markets and fending off the cigar sellers -- would-be bartenders will endlessly circle the ship, rags in hand. During the Sunday day-at-sea, while the rum flows around the pool and the calypso band plays on, the pile of old mattresses will grow in the hold. The virus is largely forgotten, pushed away by the urgencies of the Men's Hairy Chest Contest and the parade of waiters and the extravagant midnight Grand Gala Buffet. By Sunday evening, fewer than 10 people reported to the infirmary, and none of those for anything suspected to be the Norwalk virus.
"I think it was a flash in the pan," says Goodwin. "It's over."
Still, as she simmers in the Lido Deck hot tub on the last night, Atlanta cruiser Lockhart reports that she dutifully drained her bottle of hand sanitizer during the trip. And she still got sick.
"It wasn't the flu," she says, with a touch of sheepish irony as the Fascination steams back toward Miami, where it will unload, reload and sail again. "But it was the worst hangover of my life."