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Video: I went on the first cruise to return to Vancouver. Here's what the COVID-19 situation was like

Would you go on a cruise? 🚢
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Metro Vancouver, B.C. residents who sail on a cruise ship need to be aware of the coronavirus rules. Find out what to know about cruising and COVID-19.

Have you ever sailed on a 300-metre-long ship by yourself? 

Well, neither have I — but I did have a stateroom all to myself on the first cruise ship to visit Canada Place in over a whopping two years — and that allowed for some reflection (and not of myself in the ocean — the water isn't shallow enough for that sort of tomfoolery). 

Canada had advised against any kind of international travel for a considerable amount of time. While the government briefly lifted its advisory before the new year, it reinstated one after COVID-19 cases started to climb due to the Omicron variant. 

But cruising was particularly frowned upon as a result of some high-profile cases at the start of the pandemic. 

The infamous Ruby Princess outbreak saw at least 900 passengers test positive for coronavirus and 28 of them died, according to the BBC. 

Before I left for the cruise, at least a handful of people raised concerns over my safety, despite the fact that I'm triple-vaccinated and everyone onboard Holland America Line vessels must be at least double-vaccinated. All passengers must also show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days prior to the sailing.   

Did I feel safe?

The ship departed San Diego in the afternoon on Sunday, April 3. The Disney Wonder was docked beside the ship I was about to board, Holland America Line's Ms Koningsdam. There were numerous people at the pier and I was concerned it would be quite a wait to get through security. Much to my surprise, however, everyone was checked through quickly. I had printed copies of all of my documents, which made things a little easier. 

While it was crowded, everyone was required to wear masks during the embarkation part of the cruise. All passengers had their proof of vaccination verified, too. 

Once onboard, however, the ship felt decidedly less crowded. All crew donned N95 masks and people were trying their best to physically distance themselves. 

The Centres for Disease Control in the United States has implemented a "Cruise Ship Colour Status" program for cruise ships operating or planning to operate in the United States. A couple of days after I boarded the ship, the CDC announced that the vessel I was on was under Orange status. In other words, 0.3 per cent or more of the total passengers on board were infected with the virus.

Naturally, I felt concerned about the investigation and started wondering what would happen next. But the situation was resolved without any notification or involvement of the passengers on board. Within a matter of days, the ship was moved to Green status.

Coronavirus protocol on the ship

While I was on the ship, Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha told me in an interview that guests who test positive for the virus are isolated from the rest of the ship and are disembarked from the sailing at the next port. If they haven't finished their quarantine period when they are removed from the ship, the cruise line will arrange a hotel for them. 

"If it's crew or guests we have a series of isolation cabins," he explained. "And so they are separate from everyone else at the point we know that someone is positive."

Holland America Line also provides guests who test positive and spend time in isolation with a credit, added Antorcha. 

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Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha speaks to reporters in the Crows Nest on the Ms koningsdam. Photo by Elana Shepert / Vancouver Is Awesome

The CDC will launch an investigation if as few as four or five people on a 1,500 person sailing test positive for COVID-19; that figure would meet the requirement for Orange status. The test positivity rate for the United States is much higher, stressed the cruise line's president.

On this sailing, passengers were removed in San Francisco and the ship was moved to Green status following the investigation. And while the number of passengers wearing face masks waned as the sailing progressed, I never saw any crew without masks. 

"The harder it is the more pride you have in the end."

When asked if he was excited to bring the first ship to Canada in over two years, Ms Kongingsdam Captain Robert Jan Kan told reporters in the Crows Nest that he had mixed emotions; It was a point of pride for the crew but it came with substantial pressure. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kan sailed around the world, bringing thousands of crew members home after the virus brought the cruise industry to a grinding halt. Many of them were unable to go home because their home countries had implemented strict COVID-19 protocol and they were living on the ship for months.

The experience had a profound impact on the captain, who underscored that this voyage couldn't be taken lightly. That said, Vancouver is a key port for Holland America Line; it was the first cruise line to ever visit Canada Place when it opened up, too.

"Vancouver is one of our big turnaround ports of course...it's the gateway to Alaska," he noted, adding that cruising up the Johnstone Strait from the city affords particularly breathtaking views. 

Holland America Line Hotel General Manager Ron Bontenbal echoed the captain's sentiment, remarking that they would only feel like they could celebrate once they safely sailed out of Vancouver.

"If you look at the amount of information we have to process, absorb...it's a lot to go through," he said.

"But the harder it is the more pride you have in the end."