2021 cruising report

So we’re out here in what is still known by some as the West Indies. More specifically, we’re in the leeward islands of the West Indies, one of the few places in the Caribbean we haven’t hit before on a cruise ship. This is our fourth consecutive trip with Holland America, but our first cruise since cruising restarted and pandemic protocols were implemented. Is it worth the hassle to get aboard this cruise? Are we likely to get covid-19? How have things changed since those pre-pandemic cruises?

In a way, we’ve been on a pandemic cruise before, having taken a JoCo theme cruise on Holland America in March 2020. We had our temperature checked before we were let onto that ship, as covid-19 was just becoming a thing then. We took that cruise despite many good meaning people warning us not too.

It turned out okay with no cases on our ship. We had invested about $6,000 in that cruise and it was hard to flush that money down the drain. In the pandemic era though we bought cruise insurance which we didn’t need. Or maybe we will need it. One rumor going around the MS Rotterdam (our cruise ship) is that if we get Omicron covid-19 cases, we could be detained for up to fourteen days before being off boarded in Fort Lauderdale.

Needless to say, that’s not on our plans. I hope cruise insurance will cover that, but more importantly we have two cats at home and no guarantee our cat/house sitter could stay an extra two weeks in this event. Also, my wife will run out of medications long before the two weeks would be up.

But I can sense it’s a needless worry. Everyone on board presented vaccination certifications to get on the gangway. We also presented recent PCR or antigen tests. Moreover, since this is Holland America, this is basically a cruise ship full of old farts like us. Seniors are a disproportionately vaccinated group. Then there are all these covid-19 protocols on board. With a few exceptions like meal times, you are masked unless outdoors, in your stateroom, or eating. And you are constantly washing hands. The ship has hand washing stations going into the buffet on the Lido deck. You mostly travel only on Holland America excursions and are masked on those too.

Is this too much hassle though to cruise? That’s an individual judgment, but it isn’t for me. Most of the time I am inured to the masking requirements. I don’t need the masks I brought. Holland America provided a number of super comfortable masks for free, masks that will follow me home and probably become my everyday masks. It’s certainly possible that a case or two of covid-19 could develop. But if there is any place on the planet where herd immunity has been achieved, it’s probably on our cruise ship. We’ve pretty much all had booster shots too. That and all the sanitation suggests to me we’d be more likely to get covid-19 from wandering masked inside the local Big Y grocery store than here on this ship.

Other cruise lines though may not be as anal about covid-19 as Holland America, but probably are. Some like Carnival cater to a younger and arguably wilder crowd. Some of these cruise lines have reputations for being wild party ships, where you can find overly intoxicated drunks passed out in the hallways. These sorts probably aren’t beyond ginning up some fake credentials to get on board a cruise ship. So if you have to take a cruise, you may be better with one that caters to oldsters, like Holland America.

Holland America’s Rotterdam, which we are on, is its newest ship. It’s still being broken in, as it had its first paying passengers in October. Walking the promenade, you can still smell the newly varnished wooden rails. Having sailed the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Oosterdam and Westerdam, it’s interesting to observe what has changed. In general, you get pretty much the same experience. For Holland America, the Rotterdam is a large ship, but not nearly the behemoths in the Royal Caribbean fleet. We’ve come to appreciate smaller ships and actually prefer them. We also appreciate an older set of passengers.

You do miss a few things on Holland America, compared to other cruise lines. Norwegian, while having a reputation as a party ship, has fabulous shows. Holland America though has a fabulous variety of musical venues: a blues club, a rock and roll club and a number of piano bars. The quality of the performers is top notch. We are a bit highbrow and prefer Lincoln Center Stage, where a classical quartet performs three 45-minute shows a day, with one being a repeat of an afternoon performance. It doesn’t matter which venue you choose. You can easily move from one venue to the other; they are all quite excellent.

The Rotterdam also has a new stage with all the latest high technology including wall to wall LED displays, making you feel like you are looking at billboards in Times Square. We saw an amazing dance performance on the Main Stage that used all these lights quite effectively. Their main stage is probably state of the art for the cruise industry at the moment. Just don’t expect Broadway musicals or synchronized bungees jumpers falling from the ceilings like we saw twelve years ago on Norwegian.

All cruise lines specialize in picking your pockets, and Holland America has gotten more creative at it since the pandemic. It used to be at dinner you would get a basket of rolls to share with your fellow table mates. Now they give you one. All the menus offer premium choices for extra money, even in main dining. For $75 you can order an enormous steak and $3.95 gets you fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfast. There is still silly towel art on your bed at night, but chocolates on your bed at night are problematic. There is also a new club, Club Orange, which is exclusive which means if you want a private dining area, you got to pay up, part of the “ship within a ship” concept a lot of cruise lines are doing.

Holland America has always served normal portions, unlike the other cruise lines where you can easily pack 4000 calories into a meal. It didn’t matter though because the quality of the food was always outstanding. Gala night though disappointed. The filet mignon was excellent, but there was no baked potato and the meat could not have been more than four ounces. So you had this enormous plate with a tiny steak and a few tiny vegetables. The Lido deck is always available of course, but even there the buffet seemed smaller than on previous cruises. Moreover, there were hours like 9:30 PM when it was completely shut down.

It’s hard to complain too much though. It’s a pleasure to go cruising again, even with a mask on much of the time. It’s a pleasure to travel and a pleasure not to be stuck at home. It’s a pleasure to converse with strangers over shared meals and actually socialize, something this introvert generally avoids.

Shore excursions are a bit chancy. We’re not stopping in Guadeloupe, which had recent riots caused by crowds of anti-vaxxers. Even here in today’s port of call, St. Martin, the French side was off limits. There was civil unrest there too, this one due to lack of work for younger people. I have a feeling there will be more of this in other destinations before we berth back in Fort Lauderdale in eight days.

Life may be surreally nice on our cruise ship, but it’s hardly representative of most of the world right now.

Traveling in the age of covid (part two)

Time to get this vacation thing on! But boy, it’s sure a hassle. We’re on a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale today and getting on the ship is like running a marathon. It’s also become more expensive. It’s hard to quantify the additional expense as certain things, like WiFi, are now part of the fare. In addition, in the age of covid-19, it’s stupid to not add travel insurance so there’s that, for both the cruise and our flights.

Shore excursion prices look higher too, but there seems little point in booking shore excursions when the itinerary can change. It changed about a week ago, so we’re just going to wait until we get onboard the ship and listen to the lectures before booking shore excursions … and hope they aren’t sold out.

But perhaps the most annoying thing of all is meeting the covid-19 testing requirements. You have to present a negative PCR or Antigen test and it can’t be more than 48 hours old, plus the test must be observed. This meant we had to get a test on Monday and we had to hope we’d get test results back before our cruise departed. CVS Pharmacy says it takes 24-48 hours for test results, but there is no guarantee. My wife got her results back in under a day. We were tested at the same time, so why didn’t I get mine? Was there a snafu?

Before scarfing down a dinner at a Bradley International brew pub last night, I called CVS. I eventually learned that my results simply weren’t available yet. I thought maybe they got lost. They arrived sometime in the middle of the night while we slept peacefully at a Hyatt hotel here. Of course, we both tested negative.

So we’ll be on board our ship. Our hotel was strategically chosen because they offer free shuttles to and from the airport and the cruise port, plus a complementary breakfast. Cruising is still struggling to come back here. It was made harder by Governor Ron DeSantis trying to impose on cruise lines a requirement that they take unvaccinated passengers. It was a pointless exercise designed to prove his street creds among Republicans, because it’s the federal government sets these requirements. Plus cruise lines don’t have to dock in Florida, and having cruises overwhelmed with covid-19 cases taints their brands. Using Florida is just more convenient for them. Until recently, if you wanted a Caribbean cruise you flew to some place like the Bahamas, assuming they would let you in.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale last night was interesting. It was my first time on a plane since the pandemic. It’s always a bit chancy to take an evening flight the day before a cruise, and as we approach winter, snow delays were a possibility. But weirdly all flights out of Bradley International were on time and the flight was extra smooth. Everyone wore masks, but on both the plane and in the terminal I noticed dissenters who think that wearing a mask but not putting it over your nose counts. It doesn’t. I wish police would arrest these scofflaws. Thankfully, there weren’t too many of them.

While wearing masks on a flight is a new thing, I was glad for it. In addition to reducing the likelihood of acquiring or passing on covid-19, they reduce the likelihood of acquiring all sorts of sicknesses. The lady next to me was suffering from some sort of cold. Wearing her mask might keep me from getting whatever she got. So I’m hoping that one result of this is that when the pandemic is over that the masking requirements in airplanes and terminals remains. It’s a sensible precaution and really no bother at all.

More masking is happening in Florida than I expected. People wore masks in the terminal, and outside of it. Here in our hotel people are mostly masked. This could be because Fort Lauderdale is a relatively blue part of Florida. Or it could be that the Delta variant, which knocked Florida for a loop, knocked some sense into a lot of the people here. Curiously Florida now has one of the lowest covid-19 infection rates in the country. This is likely because Delta tore through the state. One effect of all those deaths and hospitalizations is to make the virus harder to transmit.

But we’re ready. With a fresh booster shot coursing through our veins and masks up the wazoo, we’re ready to cruise. Some masking will be needed on the ship, but it will be minimally invasive. The West Indies awaits.

Nantucket

When you are married, unless you are a traveling salesman you don’t tend to travel alone. But on rare occasions I do travel alone.

Today I spent my second day traveling alone in Nantucket, a spit of land about twenty miles long off Cape Cod. My wife has a gaggle of far flung girlfriends taking over our house this weekend. Traveling to Nantucket seemed better than dealing with the noise and lack of privacy I’d have to endure. It was that and I’ve always wanted to go to Nantucket. I doubted I could coax my wife to visit it, so why not?

Nantucket Harbor Area
Nantucket Harbor Area

Martha’s Vineyard is probably the more famous spit of land off Cape Cod. I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard but once was enough, perhaps for life. But except for Woods Hole and Falmouth, Cape Cod was largely unknown to me. This visit marks my first time I’ve to the arm of the cape. To get to Nantucket you need a ferry, and most of them go out of Hyannis, on the south end of Cape Cod.

It wasn’t just wanderlust that took me to Nantucket. I come from a family of ten. Perhaps to feel better for having a large family, my father read us Cheaper by the Dozen as children. The book relates the large Gilbreth family of the early 20th century. The patriarch, Frank, made a lot of money in the emerging field of motion study. He helped businesses find ways to accomplish manual labor more efficiently, which allowed him to prosper while having a dozen children. In the book, the family’s lengthy summer vacations to Nantucket took up a chapter or two. The family holed up near the beach at a house with two adjoining lighthouses they called The Shoe.

The Shoe still exists! I rented a bike today to see the island, and one of my first stops was Hulbert Avenue where the two lighthouses, renamed by Frank as Mic and Cyc can still be found. The lighthouses were sold to the Gilbreths and moved inland. The two light houses plus the main house were affectionately called The Shoe for Old Mother Hubbard who had too many children. The Gilbreth house has likely been rebuilt since the late 1910s and 1920s when the Gilbreths were summer visitors. The neighborhood feels upper middle class.

“The Shoe”

Since I only had two nights, I had to be selective. The guy at the bike rental shop warned me that I could not bike both sides of the island in a day, so I chose the eastern side of the island. I imagined Nantucket to be more rural and less populated than Martha’s Vineyard. It is certainly harder to get to, and a very pricey place to live. Getting to and from the island will cost you at least $50 or so. If you want to bring a car back and forth, it’s over $300. Known mostly for its summer tourists, in November, the main city at the harbor feels 75% shut down. I was lucky to be able to rent any bike, as only one bike shop remained open. Fortunately, it was only two blocks from my B&B.

For being a very new island, Nantucket has quite a bit of history. It only emerged from the ocean about five thousand years ago, after the last glacial melt. This suggests it won’t endure very long. Given our climate change crisis, it may be mostly underwater in fifty years. Naturally, Native American tribes beat the Europeans there.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Nantucket gained fame as the home of whaling. Until the discovery of petroleum, whale oil was in large demand and most of it was refined in Nantucket. Fleets from Nantucket traveled the world’s oceans and brought back the whale oil to Nantucket.

It was about the time the Gilbreth’s found the island that it found a new mission: a summer destination for well moneyed tourists, many of whom like the Gilbreths built houses. Its isolation allowed its citizens to become surprisingly progressive. There was a large Quaker community here, and people who felt exploited often came to Nantucket because no one particularly cared if you were not white.

Brant Point Lighthouse and Harbor
Brant Point Lighthouse and Harbor

Some of the earliest women in American politics came from Nantucket. Nantucket generated one of the first accredited female physicians in the 19th century. Psychologically, you feel away from it all on the island. Except for the few that arrive by plane, getting to the island or off of it involves a ferry. You can still take the old fashioned steamboat ferries, but I arrived on one of the high-speed ferries that shortens the commute to an hour each way versus two and a quarter hours for the steamboat ferry.

November turned out to be a good time to visit. While the days are short, you don’t have to fight traffic although downtown it was still hard to find a parking space. With temperatures in the fifties and abundant sunshine, biking was a pleasure. The island has many bike trails that I followed out to the town of Siasconset on the southeast side of the island. There I encountered the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in many years. Looking out to sea, I realized a seal was surreptitiously looking back at me from time to time.

Beach near Siasconset
Beach near Siasconset

Like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket today feels largely like a place for the wealthy to live or get away to. But it feels less busy than the vineyard. As on Martha’s Vineyard there are plenty of ordinary people, mostly engaged in commerce, that somehow get by in spite of the high cost of living. I paid $60 for dinner for very good chicken curry with naan and desert. To live here must mean a lot of additional expenses going to and from the island. The high cost of living is explained in part by the costs of getting goods to the island. The Steamship Authority carries a lot of loaded semis to and from the island. I watched them queue up this afternoon from an observation post on the top of the Nantucket Whale Museum.

There are no mountains on Nantucket, and it is less forested than Martha’s Vineyard. But after biking more than twenty miles of biking today, I discovered I spent a lot of calories getting up gently rising bluffs of compressed coral. You can find what looks like many multi-million dollar estates, not just on bluffs by the sea, but further inland.

In town, you get a picture perfect vision of New England island life: cobblestone and bricked streets, long wharves, Cape Cod houses, picturesque streets with eateries, boutique shops, B&Bs and rental units, most pretty close to the beach.

So Nantucket certainly does feel unique and special. That it’s hard to get to is part of its allure. You don’t go to Nantucket on a whim, at least not unless you have a sizeable bank account. The mainland is just barely visible, and only on clear days. In most directions if you look out there is nothing to see between you and Europe.

If I lived long enough, I’d enjoy spending a decade or so on Nantucket. Meanwhile, I feel privileged to have come here, however briefly.

The news from Newport News

My blogging has been delayed by an overdue family reunion. Months in the planning, all but one of my siblings and most of our spouses met in southern Virginia, our first get together since my father’s funeral in 2016.

We chose what turned out to be a beautiful but eclectic rental house on the James River near Spring Grove, Virginia. This manor house was built in 1885 and is part of a larger Baptist Edge Christian Camp. Most of us were not aware of its rules, which included no alcohol with the threat of immediate eviction if we imbibed on the campus. It didn’t stop us from drinking several bottles of wine while we were there, but we were discreet enough to put the empty bottles in our cars for disposal off campus. The alcohol prohibition seemed quite odd, as if these Christians were unaware that Jesus drank wine at the Last Supper. Also, we found wine glasses in the cupboard.

Manor House at Edge Christian Camp
Manor House at Edge Christian Camp

The house itself was in need of a lot of maintenance but was certainly functional and included a large kitchen, dining room, parlor and a large enclosed deck with lots of tables for playing cards. It was a mini Tara and scratched whatever itch I had to live on a plantation for a while. It stands on a bluff overlooking the James River and was so far off the beaten path that Hooterville would have been a major metropolis. The closest town of Surry was a 20 minute drive away. You had to drive many a poorly marked back road that turned into an unpaved stretch, then take a “road” around a tree to get on the campus.

James River
James River

The Tidewater area of Virginia is pretty amazing. It sits at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The James River is just one of three major rivers that flow into the area. (These include the York and Rappahannock rivers.) Most rivers tend to be pretty narrow, but it’s hard to find a stretch of these rivers less than a mile across. So if you are a boater, it’s an ideal location to live as there are waterways everywhere as well as access to the Atlantic Ocean if you want to go that far. It’s also likely to be severely impacted by climate change. Sea levels are already rising, making my sister’s house in Poquoson a likely future casualty. Fortunately, she expects to move from the area within a few years to higher ground.

Jamestown - Scotland Ferry
Jamestown – Scotland Ferry

There’s a lot of history to be found in the area. One of the first places we visited was Jamestown, right across the river from us, accessed by the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry which runs every half hour. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Settled by venture capitalists in England, it was never financially successful. Early colonists died of hunger, disease and malnutrition. But it endured, which makes it historically significant. Technically though the first European settlement in North America happened in St. Augustine, Florida. It just took a couple of hundred years for the title to pass from the Spanish to Great Britain and then to the United States.

Jamestown
Jamestown

One of the areas downsides is its traffic. It took us more than an hour to get to any site from our house. The dearth of bridges across the James and York rivers make traveling tedious, as did the frequent traffic congestion. Williamsburg, Newport News, Yorktown and Hampton are all on a peninsula between the York and James Rivers, further limiting mobility. The Colonial Parkway at least makes for a scenic road to get between places. After Jamestown, we took it to tour Yorktown.

As you should recall, the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown. A French fleet bollixed up the British fleet by keeping it from getting out of the Chesapeake Bay. A combination of our soldiers and French soldiers laid siege to Cornwallis’s forces there, who eventually surrendered. I came back two days later to tour the actual battlefields, where the earthen berms created by our forces still exist.

Yorktown battlefield
Yorktown battlefield

With just three full days and many family obligations, plus the long commutes to and from our house, touring was limited. But we did manage a tour of the Norfolk shipyards, which documents the huge size of the U.S. Navy. The area though is rife with other government institutions, including Army and Air Force bases, and a NASA research facility at Langley Air Force Base where my sister leads a team of spaceflight researchers. We also took in the Virginia Air and Space Science Center, and was given a guided tour by my brother in law. He has excellent credentials as he used to be the manager for the International Space Station.

Apollo 12 command module
Apollo 12 command module

So it was a great albeit somewhat short reunion, made longer by the hour-plus hour drives each way from our home in Massachusetts and the usual traffic woes between them. A “bomb cyclone” that hit New England even affected us as its winds whipped up the waters, making for a loud night of gale force winds locally that kept us from getting much sleep.

The Hampton Roads area though is worth more extended visits. It’s one of these areas of the country that should be visited much more than it is and would be quite an interesting and exciting area to live.

Traveling in the age of covid

We’re leaving New York City after three days of playing tourist. It’s my first trip away from home since the pandemic began.

It’s been interesting to see how much has changed for tourists in the age of covid, which turns out to be quite a lot. In NYC there are definitely privileges associated with being vaccinated. For one, we could get in to see two Broadway shows. Our vaccination cards and IDs were checked at the door, but even so we could not take off our masks during the performance. If you were eating or drinking food from the concessions, you could briefly unmask, but that was the only exception.

Amtrak requires you to self certify that you are vaccinated or have a recent negative covid-19 test, but doesn’t check your credentials. You wear your mask on the train, except when eating or drinking. Their cars are pretty big so it’s likely it wouldn’t be a problem if you were unmasked, but better safe than sorry. The penalty for not wearing a mask could be permanent disbarment from Amtrak.

You end up wearing a mask most of the time because most of the time you are indoors. There are a few exceptions when indoors. It’s pointless inside your hotel room. We had breakfast at our hotel and it was not possible when eating, but to get into the restaurant you had to show proof of vaccination and show an ID. Most people kept their mask on in the restaurant except while eating.

When outdoors, most people were unmasked. Those who were masked probably just didn’t want to bother temporarily unmasking. It’s not pleasant to spend most of your day breathing your warm air, but you do get used to it. The only real problem if that masks can get wet from your own breath after a while. I discovered a cloth mask is preferred, as a paper one I bought failed when looping it over my ears.

How safe is all this in the delta age? It’s hard to say. It’s unlikely I have acquired an infection, but for all I know I might test positive. I just don’t have any symptoms. I’m probably fine despite being in close quarters with other humans for hours at a time.

Without a N95 mask, masks won’t prevent me from getting covid, although they can lessen the odds. Their purpose is to reduce the risk that if I have the virus that I will pass it on to others. It’s basically common courtesy; wearing a mask effectively says that I care to take proactive steps to inadvertently pass it on to you. Not wearing a mask effectively says the opposite: I don’t care enough about you to bother to inconvenience myself by wearing one. No wonder that those of us who are vaccinated by 2:1 majorities are for requiring mask mandates for everyone.

So the vaccine can’t prevent exposure to the virus or ensure you don’t get the disease. If most everyone masks, it reduces greatly the odds of getting infected. But it does mean that if you are exposed to the virus, you may test positive but have no symptoms. The main point of the vaccine is to lessen the likelihood of hospitalization and death. That’s how vaccines work. So I expect that I will get covid-19 at some point, or at least test positive for it. If I’m lucky, I’ll never develop symptoms. If I get it, I will almost certainly not die from it and avoid hospitalization. And if most of us wear masks in public we can markedly reduce the level of infections and deaths.

I am noticing some new trends. At least in New York, restaurants are going menu-less: you need a smartphone to see the menu. You scan a QR code and follow the link to the menu. This saves a lot of paper, obviously, but it also allows restaurants to save money printing menus and to dynamically change prices. This is true of museums and other tourist attractions as well. For example, when we toured St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we used a QR code to download an electronic tour.

We were last in New York City in November 2019. The city has obviously changed since then. There are a lot of closed restaurants, even close to Broadway. Many restaurants are taking over sidewalks and parking places, allowing outdoor dining. The city doesn’t feel quite as busy and vibrant as it did back then. Broadway is about half reopened.

In general, New Yorkers are vaccinated and vaccine-savvy, and don’t have a problem masking up. They suffered 30,000 fatalities early in the pandemic, which helped, but being a large multi-cultural city they have learned to mostly get along with each other and are used to following rules.

It’s not surprising then that the city has weathered this latest covid wave reasonably well. These restrictions seem to be working reasonably well, allowing the city to do what it does best: make money. Judging by our hotel rates and ticket prices, they are making plenty of it again. I doubt this is true of most Southern states.

The long term impact of COVID-19

Aboard the M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, off Hispanola, May 11, 2020

We JoCo Cruisers don’t seem to be too upset about the coronavirus thing, here on Day 5 of our cruise. We have more pressing things to do, which is basically to nerd out with fellow nerds, something they don’t get to do much of once they are home. Life on the mainland is hardly like The Big Bang Theory. As best I can tell we two thousand passengers on the Nieuw Amsterdam have escaped the dread coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease.

The Dominican Republic let us into Santo Domingo yesterday where our activities went on without a hitch. Santo Domingo is the bright spot on the island of Hispanola: a chocolate city, thoroughly modern with crushing and relentless traffic. It’s a shining gem of a Caribbean city, despite being the oldest city in the Americas. Considering what Christopher Columbus did to the natives here (basically wiped them out, mostly through disease) you would think they would not revere him. But he is revered, and the current citizens of the Dominican Republic are mostly distant ancestors of slaves.

As for the Turks and Cacoas, they are giving our cruise ship a pass. We were schedule to stop at Grand Turk on Thursday, but that’s off. Instead, we’ll stop at Holland America’s private island, Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas on Friday instead. We can’t be kicked off an island that Holland America owns. We were scheduled to go there on Sunday, but stormy seas kept us from berthing offshore and tendering in.

I don’t blame the Turks and Cacoas for rejecting us, but it’s really kind of silly since no one on our ship is “presenting” signs of the virus. Another Princess cruise ship, one of those we saw leaving with us out of Fort Lauderdale, is sailing aimlessly off the coast of Florida. A cruise greeter at the Princess terminal apparently got COVID-19, so this ship is now suspect. Here on the Nieuw Amsterdam, we’re trusting to frequent hand washing and lots of Purell and doing our best to party on.

Our principle problem is there are lots of us in a confined space, so if one of us has the virus it is likely to get quickly passed on. It’s pretty clear that our government is clueless on how to intelligently manage this pandemic. There is some good news about this virus. Unless someone with the virus coughs in your face, you get it from touching surfaces that has the virus on it. The virus degrades with time, faster on certain surfaces than others. It looks like a virus could persist on a surface for 2-3 days. You shouldn’t get it from an air conditioning or heating system. Keep six to 12 feet away from people, wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face and most likely you won’t get it. Vigilance and regular hygiene are your friends. Act like a doctor who sees sick people every day and rarely gets sick because they wash hands before and after seeing you.

For us, success will be to make it home without the virus. Since incubation can take up to two weeks, if we make it then we probably won’t know for sure until two more week have elapsed. Even if not infected, getting home might prove problematic. Flights are being canceled. I had Wifi briefly in Santo Domingo (there is free public Wifi in much of the city) and so far no notices from JetBlue, our carrier home, on canceled flights. We’re getting a $50 per berth cruise credit, so my share went for Wifi here on the boat, where it is slow and costs a lot. Fingers are crossed.

We are fortunate to have Andy the epidemiologist and Tim the virologist on board. Both are paying passengers, but are spending some time giving us the straight dope, which mostly isn’t coming from the White House. My suspicion that we were probably safer on a tightly packed ship with lots of people doing proper sanitation than outside of it in a public that isn’t seems validated. Tim the virologist says even air travel is not that dangerous. Unless someone sneezes on you, the cabin’s HEPA air filters will keep viruses from hitting you. We’ve got sanitary wipes to clean nearby surfaces, in case the previous occupant was carrying the virus. Assuming authorities let us catch our flights, we should be fine. The dirty Fort Lauderdale airport we fly out of is more of a danger to us than this cruise ship is at the moment. We need to keep our distance from people there as best we can and wash our hands in the restroom frequently.

Markets though operate principally on fear, which is why they keep plunging. There’s no question though that this will all have an impact. A recession is a virtual certainty. Republicans and Democrats may come together to, temporarily at least, make employers pay sick leave for employees, at taxpayers’ dime most likely. The corporate welfare is likely to get larger as travel and other affected industries are likely to get bailouts. Maybe that will calm markets.

The long term impact of the coronavirus may be to convince people that looked unconvinceable to let government govern again. Joe Biden seems to be the primary beneficiary of coronavirus fear. Real relief may wait until January 2021 if he is elected, but in times like these sober people look a whole lot more vote-worthy than those at the extremes. That’s fine by me although Biden was never my first choice.

What I’m really hoping for is a political tsunami in November, so Democrats can regain all levers of government. Maybe next time we get a virus like this we won’t be caught so needlessly flat footed.

Post updated March 16, 2020 to indicate that coronavirus can persist on surfaces for up to a couple of days. Post updated again on April 12, 2020. It is now believed that in interior spaces the virus can persist in the air like an aerosol for an hour or more. So wear a mask and gloves when in these spaces.

Cruising in the midst of a coronavirus panic and economic upheaval

Aboard the M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, off Haiti, March 9, 2020

Markets are plunging and authorities are pleading for people not to get on cruise ships. So of course we are on a cruise ship. We merrily set sail on Saturday along with close to a dozen other cruise ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We’re on a Holland America ship again, but the difference this time is that rather than being one of the youngest passengers on the ship we are now one of the oldest.

Holland America passengers skews toward 60+, but it’s really more 70+, which is why we felt so young on our last cruise. The difference in this cruise is that it’s a themed cruise, a JoCo cruise to be specific. Having invested over $6000 in this cruise, we weren’t going to be deterred by the threat of coronavirus. We might have had we not paid all this money into it and had some way of getting it back. So armed with plenty of saniwipes in our carry on, we took our chances and boarded a JetBlue flight last Friday from Hartford to Fort Lauderdale.

There are hundreds of cruises still going on across the globe and last I checked only two had cases of coronavirus, both of the Princess Cruise Line brand. There were two Princess cruises going out of Fort Lauderdale with us. The two thousand or so of us passenger onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam may look odd. My wife is hardly the only woman around here with purple hair. In fact, it’s more normal to see oddly colored hair on this cruise than not.

This cruise is full of weird people and oddballs, the sorts of whom we used to meet at science fiction conventions thirty years ago when that was still a thing. Now there is plenty of evidence that the remainders of this tribe take this annual JoCo cruise instead. It’s aligned around a programmer turned nerdy song writer Jonathan Colton. There are plenty of polyamorous people on this ship, along with all sorts of other other odd people, but I’m betting they are much more a safe sex type than the general population at large. They are at least 90% white, average age probably somewhere around 35, the sorts that like to dress in costumes, decorate their cabin doors with quirky stuff, play endless role playing games mostly in the upper dining room, sleep little and frequently queue into long lines at the food court on the Lido Deck.

Time will tell if we suffer the fate of the two Princess cruise ships, but most likely we’ll be fine. Even before all this coronavirus started, sanitation has always been a high priority on cruise ships. Purell stations are everywhere and people are mostly refraining from touching each other and washing their hands thoroughly after bathroom stops or when leaving or returning to their rooms.

We’ve rented the whole ship so it’s been largely transformed for us. Generally, this is good. There is no annoying art auction and the shops and casino look eerily empty. Also largely empty is the promenade (Deck 3) which is usually full of walkers and joggers. I saw one lone jogger and a few others in deck chairs. It was the quietest place on this noisy ship.

Should I take it as an omen that we didn’t berth at our first port of call? It’s Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, and pretty much always the first port of call on one of their ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We weren’t spurned due to coronavirus fears, but because seas were choppy due to a strong low pressure system north of our ship. That’s why the captain changed course and this morning we found ourselves south of Hispanola where the seas are finally calmer.

Tomorrow we are expected to berth at Santo Domingo where we’ll have an outdoor concert. Last I heard, the Dominican Republic hadn’t refused our entry. That’s because no one was let on the ship sick. They took our temperature prior to boarding, and we had to assert we hadn’t recently traveled through suspect Asian airports.

Still, you never know. We don’t get much news on this cruise ship. Internet is prohibitively expensive, but we do get satellite TV and Holland America doesn’t block the New York Times site, in fact it subscribes to it for us. For the most part the passengers seem vigilant about hygiene but won’t let it affect their valuable social interactions. This cruise is a place to be your inner oddball, so it’s quite okay to be Corporal Klinger in high heels and hose around here. You are probably one of a dozen passengers with a similar theme. Klinger though was just vying for a Section 8. There are plenty of real trans people on this cruise. If you can’t figure it out from their somewhat manly appearance and breasts, their name tag suggests you use “they” as their personal pronoun. They look happy and liberated. For a week they can be accepted and be themselves. It’s going home to a much colder world that is the hard part for them.

If anything, I am the oddball around here. I’m dressed American-ish, my personal pronoun is He, and I’m not polyamorous, in costume, have a stuffed dragon on my shoulder or am particularly into the odd stuff most of these people are into. My wife is quite into this culture. I just kind of observe it all from the sidelines. I’m no redneck and believe in live and let live. In my sixty plus years, I simply don’t care what your color, age, body shape or your sexual orientation is. We all are here and should just get along. The only thing that gives me some heartache are self-identified Republicans and conservatives. I just don’t understand them.

And until Saturday when we return and are hopefully let off the ship, I don’t have to. We are living in a kind of private space on this cruise, mostly insulated from the real world which will probably come crashing back to us on Saturday. Any coronavirus is likely on shore, not here on the ship. There are board games and weird seminars and exclusive shows on the Main Stage every evening. It may be that for us the safest and friendliest place in the world, at least for the moment, is right on this ship with the coast of Haiti off the port side.

Expect a recession

A recession is coming. It’s probably already here; we just can’t prove it yet.

The trigger was the emergence of the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease in late 2019 in China, but if it hadn’t happened it would have likely happened later in the year anyhow. As predicted it’s spreading all over the globe. People are already starting to hunker down. In some places it’s getting hard to find bottled water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

This is an overreaction. You don’t need bottled water unless the public water supply system goes out, which it won’t. And even if somehow the water is unclean, you can boil it. Fear of course makes people overly cautious, but it’s currently way overblown. It’s the fear that is driving down the stock market and making people buy too much toilet paper.

The world economy is now built on specialization and trade, so when China’s manufacturing sector takes an indefinite hit, it’s going to have large worldwide ripples. It’s already happening, but if you need proof you just have to look at Chinese ports, where little is going out or coming in. When items like rolled sheet metal don’t make it to manufacturing markets, value-added products can’t get produced. That will cause layoffs. But fear in general will cause people to be cautious with their money. The Fed can cut its discount rate by half a percent, but it won’t do much to solve the underlying problem.

Coronavirus was perhaps half the reason I sold twenty percent of my stocks and moved them into bonds on February 14, at just about peak market. Even then, it wasn’t too hard to see how this was likely to go. With the wholly inept response by the Trump Administration, it was clear that an intelligent response to the health crisis wasn’t going to be forthcoming. We could have been much better prepared than we were, but instead Trump cut the Center for Disease Control’s budget. Voters won’t forgive incompetence when it kills their family, friends and neighbors.

It’s also becoming clearer that this virus will not only put us into recession but turn into a pandemic. It’s pretty much there already. It’s not hard to catch and there is no vaccine available. Potentially 40-70% of us could contract it. For most of us, a bout of the flu will be much worse, but since it will spread so easily and has about a two percent mortality rate, it’s going to take a lot of lives.

There are 330 million Americans. It’s realistic that 10% of us will contract the virus this year, and there may be more next year. At a two percent mortality rate, it’s likely to kill about 660,000 of us this year, principally the aged and infirmed. This is just a ballpark figure, but it’s likely to be the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu. I live in a 55+ community, with most of my neighbors probably 75+. If it gets me, it’s unlikely to kill me, but it’s likely to kill a few of my neighbors. Most neighborhoods will see at least a few casualties from this virus.

So of course we are going on a cruise. It’s hard to get out of as it’s paid for, but the cruise line won’t let in people cruise who fail a health check or who have traveled through certain countries recently. It’s unlikely to affect our cruise beyond perhaps being denied ports of call. But it’s still worrisome. 660 people on the cruise ship Diamond Princess out of Japan contracted the virus and 7 died, in part because Japan wouldn’t let them off the ship into proper quarantine facilities.

I’m not panicking. Prevention is mostly being vigilant, which means washing hands frequently. Still, cruise ships are great places to pass it on, as the Diamond Princess learned, because of the centralized air conditioning which can push the virus through the whole ship. In general, being in close quarters is not a good idea, and you can’t avoid that on a cruise ship.

Speaking of which, the travel industry will slump. Actually, it will go into a depression. And that will affect a large supply chain of its own, which will feed a downward economic spiral.

What can you do? Don’t overreact, but also take sensible precautions. Wash your hands regularly, particularly after touching foreign surfaces, with soap, for 20 seconds or more. A vaccine is probably at least a year away. This means you could easily get the virus anyhow, just realize that it probably won’t kill you, but it will be widespread.

With luck you can avoid it until there is a vaccine, but even when it’s available it will go to the elderly and infirmed first. One in 50 odds of dying is very good odds. Unfortunately, the way our society is ordered will make it worse here. So many workers have no sick leave, so they will come to work and spread it further. It’s the downside of a gig economy and our poor labor standards. Those who can will work from home. Those who can’t will bear much of the risk and be the principle carriers.

It also probably means that Trump will be a one-term president. He is managing this as ineptly as we feared. It won’t take too many MAGAers to die before their friends notice. It will help people put their prejudices aside and force them to understand the value of science again. At least I hope it will. It should.

The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

Touring the Galapagos Islands

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.