Frank Rebelo lined up the upgrades well before he boarded his Caribbean cruise: the dining package that would let him eat at high-end restaurants, the beverage package that would keep the drinks flowing. But after contracting covid-19 and isolating in a designated cabin, he had to order off the room service menu: turkey sandwich, pizza, burgers and three choices for dessert.
“They were like, ‘We’re going to give you the minimum you need to survive,’ " said Rebelo, 54, who owns a small trucking company and works as a DJ while splitting his time between Tijuana and Las Vegas.
His nine-night voyage on the Norwegian Getaway late last month went awry after a coronavirus surge sent cases soaring to record heights on land and at sea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cruise lines sailing in U.S. waters reported 5,013 coronavirus cases between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29, about 30 times more than the total from the previous two weeks.
On Dec. 31, the CDC escalated its travel warning for cruises to Level 4, advising against cruise travel even for the vaccinated. By that time, it was too late for Rebelo and thousands of others to heed the message.
Although passengers must follow strict rules to cruise — with the vast majority of people onboard vaccinated and everyone required to test negative — infections have slipped through. As positive cases mount, passengers and crew have coped with less-than-ideal accommodations. Many interviewed by The Washington Post reported long waits for service, hours without water, bare-bones food and confusion over when and who to test — even as most ships maintain their course.
A box of rice for dinner
For customers such as Rebelo, waiting on room service when they paid for premium options can feel like an indignity. For crew, quarantine can be even more difficult — even without getting sick.
One crew member on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas, who did not want her name published because she is still employed by the company, said she was sent to “soft quarantine” after having contact with someone who tested positive. That means she was allowed to work but required to spend the rest of her time in her room.
She said one day she found her lunch outside her door as workers were fogging the hallway with cleaning chemicals. She decided not to eat the food.
“One night my dinner was like just a box of rice. Nothing else. Not even a roll or a vegetable,” she said. “Just rice. I was like, cool, glad I have a box of Pop Tarts in my room.”
A former member of the cruise director staff on Oasis, Ovation and Harmony of the Seas said he tested positive for coronavirus recently and was served food in quarantine that seemed inedible to him. He declined to have his name used because of concerns about endangering future job prospects.
He provided pictures that showed a rotting orange; a small seafood salad in a box with a slice of watermelon; and a box with a scoop of white rice, a hard-boiled egg and a paltry pile of corned beef hash.
“It would be different if I worked for, like, a construction company that doesn’t know anything about how to prepare food,” he said. Royal Caribbean did not address questions about meals it provides to quarantining crew members.
Aboard the Norwegian Encore, however, passenger Kelly Araujo said she and her mother took solace in room service deliveries. The 18-year-old student at Duke University said she could order anything available from the dining rooms to her quarantine room. She ate lava cake with a molten chocolate center every night.
Araujo and her mother spent four days in a windowless room without seeing sunlight. They would nap, watch TV or scroll online, losing track of the hours.
“It just felt like one really, really, really long day,” Araujo said. “Even when we’d wake up, we would do the same thing the next day.”
During part of a three-week sailing on the Seabourn Ovation, Barry Kluger was exiled to the quarantine floor. The 68-year-old retired public relations executive missed his wife, he said, getting to see her only when she would visit a balcony near his and talk to him through an opening in a wall. Kluger, who was vaccinated, boosted and previously infected, had an asymptomatic case. He spent most of his lonely days online, posting updates about his quarantine on social media. On New Year’s Eve, he wore a tux, ordered champagne and rang in 2022 with his wife over Zoom.
Kluger said the crew, to their credit, did their best to entertain him. The cruise director brought him trivia and board games. His meals, although served on disposable plates, looked elaborate: Two ginormous shrimp on a bed of greens and dollops of sauces, grilled prawns with roasted autumnal vegetables, an assortment of mussels and octopus over yellow rice.
“Cruise lines didn’t create covid,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to feel their way through it.”
‘They did not want to know’
Araujo, the college student who enjoyed nightly lava cake, said within three days of her family’s Norwegian sailing, her mother started feeling nauseated. The family thought it was motion sickness at first.
“When we tested positive, it was like they didn’t know what to do,” she said of the company. “It was like they had not thought that anyone was going to test positive.”
Araujo, whose father tested negative, said staff told her she and her mother were the only people to test positive, but she wondered how many other guests carried the virus without getting a test. Initially, her family was told they would disembark together on the U.S. Virgin Islands. Instead, they stayed on and split up so she and her mother could quarantine.
On the Norwegian Getaway, Rebelo said he had to argue to receive a test after he developed a cough and chills.
“They grilled me,” Rebelo said. “They did not want to know. If you were firm with them, and I was, they came up and tested.”
He said he and other infected passengers on the Dec. 27 cruise tried to provide information about their close contacts on the ship, but “they would not take it down.” The ship’s next sailing was canceled.
In response to questions about his claims, Norwegian sent a link to its protocols, which say the company has “various contact tracing methodologies to identify and notify those who may have been exposed.”
Rebelo said the cruise companies are promoting their safety precautions before people board but should be doing more before they return to land. The CDC doesn’t require disembarkation testing for fully vaccinated passengers.
“You’ve been cruising around in this petri dish for 10 days,” he said. “Shouldn’t you have to test before you can go back on land?”
‘This is absolutely awful’
Graphic designer Mike Ratliff, 33, found out his 4-year-old daughter had contracted covid because she had to get tested before the end of the cruise on the Harmony of the Seas, as Royal Caribbean requires for unvaccinated kids on trips that are five nights or longer.
His daughter had been feeling a little tired and had a cough, but he said those symptoms didn’t seem out of the ordinary, especially several days into a busy cruise.
Then Ratliff found out she was positive. He thought the rest of his group — three older kids, his wife and parents, all vaccinated — would have to isolate because everyone had been exposed.
But Ratliff said only he had to isolate because he took his daughter to get tested; his wife had to persuade staff to let her join with their 6-year-old son because she did not want to be separated from her ill, youngest child. No one else in the group was tested on the ship.
He said his father even followed up with officials on board to make sure they didn’t need to quarantine or get tested. According to Royal Caribbean International spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro, passengers identified as a close contact less than 24 hours before to the end of the cruise are supposed to quarantine but are not tested on board.
During the day and a half left of the Western Caribbean sailing, Ratliff started documenting his experience with videos on TikTok, calling the account “Cruising With Covid.”
“5-Star Service” he wrote on one video where he got what sounded like a busy signal as he tried to reach room service for food and water.
“This is absolutely awful,” he says.
Sierra-Caro said passengers are provided with free bottled water and room service.
Ratliff said it took at least an hour to reach room service, and then another hour to get food delivered. After the first meal, he said, he made the mistake of throwing out empty water bottles, realizing too late that there was no way to collect water from the sink to drink. His efforts to get more water sent to the room were fruitless before dinner, which he said arrived nearly three hours after they ordered it and was “super cold.”
After Ratliff and his wife drove their four kids home from Central Florida’s Port Canaveral, everyone in the family got sick. His parents tested positive, but his immediate family didn’t even bother getting tested.
While Ratliff said his family knew cruising came with risk of covid, he was disappointed with the way they were treated after his daughter tested positive.
“It was just frustrating that they weren’t able to meet basic needs,” he said. “We’re still a guest on the ship that we paid money to be on.”
Even though some shows and events got canceled because of staffing issues, Ratliff said it was a good cruise early on, with stops in Cozumel, Costa Maya and Roatan.
“We had a good time up until we didn’t,” he said.
‘They were just overwhelmed’
David Beyer, a 68-year-old travel adviser from Colorado, tested positive Dec. 30, eight days after boarding the Celebrity Equinox for the “ultimate Southern Caribbean cruise.”
Beyer developed a slight cough before he woke up “not feeling good at all.” After waiting hours for a test and results, he relocated from his cabin to an isolation room a couple of floors down.
The new room was a “stripped-down” version of the original, Beyer said, with just a bar of soap in the shower, no tissues and no bath mat.
“If I’d had hair I needed to shampoo, I would’ve been [out of luck]” he said. “Thank goodness I’m bald.”
His husband, Don McCleary, kept their original room because he had tested negative; McCleary said he planned to get tested again this week because he had covid symptoms.
Until the ship returned to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 3, Beyer passed the time talking on the phone, playing games on his cellphone, watching TV and gazing at the sea from the balcony. He was able to order from the dining room menu, though the process to obtain the lukewarm food that arrived in paper boxes left a lot to be desired.
“Sometimes I was dialing upward of nine to 10 times to get through,” he said. “I think it was just so many people they were just overwhelmed, and it took a long time.”
After a Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Reflection, Elizabeth Seguin is stuck in quarantine in Miami for two weeks before she can make it home to Quebec. The 23-year-old disembarked on Jan. 2 for a trip that was supposed to be a respite from lockdown in the cold Canadian province.
Within her group of three families, eight people tested positive on the ship, Seguin said. She wishes she knew how many passengers in total were infected.
“We would hear the announcement every morning, like, 'It’s New Year’s Eve. I hope you have a good new year,’ ” she said, "and that kind of sucked, because we were stuck and couldn’t participate in all of that.”
Still, Seguin said she thought it was just as safe on a cruise as it would be in plenty of environments on land.
“When you go to a hotel, they don’t ask for your vaccination, they don’t ask for negative tests,” she said. “If you go to a concert, or you go to a festival, you can still get covid.”