Visitors to San Francisco who arrive by sea experience a spectacle. Their ship approaches the Marin Headlands, glides through the narrow passage called the Golden Gate, passes beneath the iconic bridge, and enters San Francisco Bay. More than eighty cruise ships visit the Port of San Francisco annually, carrying upwards of 300,000 passengers and an untold number of crew members.
But cruise ship traffic into San Francisco—and for that matter, every U.S. port—may come to a halt, due to a single vessel, the Grand Princess. The ship arrived at the Golden Gate with the novel Coronavirus virus onboard, which causes the potentially lethal disease designated as COVID-19. The highly contagious pathogen had apparently gained a foothold on the ship during its previous voyage in Mexican waters, infecting a passenger who died of COVID-19 after returning home. The virus endured onboard the Grand Princess, only to re-emerge on the ship’s next voyage. Dozens of people exhibited symptoms as the ship neared the end of another voyage to Mexico.
First came the Diamond Princess, which introduced the disease to Japan on February 4, when it docked at the port of Yokohama, where it became a micro-cluster of contagion. After weeks of improvised, ineffective quarantine measures, the ship released about 3,600 passengers and crew back to their countries of origin, many of them potential carriers of Coronavirus, because few of them had been tested conclusively for the malady.
A month later came the Grand Princess, carrying 3,533 passengers—2,422 guests and 1,111 crewmembers—from 54 nations. News reached the ship on 2 March, that a prior passenger had tested positive for COVID-19 before dying. Princess Cruises canceled the remainder of the vessel’s itinerary, and ordered the Grand Princess to steam straight back to San Francisco, its port of embarkation. Along the way, on 5 March, Coast Guard helicopters dropped test kits to the ship’s deck. The following night, Vice President Mike Pence reported that 46 passengers who showed symptoms had been “swabbed,” and 21 of them had tested positive. That total included two “guests” (who stay in private suites), and nineteen members of the crew (who live, work and breathe, sometimes cough and sneeze, and occasionally vomit, in very close quarters, below the vessel’s waterline).
The positive tests halted the ship’s progress, just short of its destination. The Grand Princess bobbed around fifty miles outside the Golden Gate, awaiting its fate, suffering the claustrophobic inconveniences of belatedly instituted quarantine measures. After a public debate over the fate of the Grand Princess, which included the President expressing his preference that the ship stay at sea indefinitely, it was allowed to dock on 9 March.
But the Grand Princess did not end its ill-starred voyage at the historic Pier on San Francisco’s lovely waterfront adapted as a “cruise ship terminal,” with all of its amenities. Instead, it headed for a “container terminal” across the bay, on the barren industrial waterfront of Oakland/Alameda. The guests disembarked into quarantine at military bases in California, Texas, and Georgia, while Canadians were allowed to fly home for their 2-week period of preventative isolation. The crewmembers, however, must remain onboard.
The cable news networks followed the Grand Princess on its sunrise passage through the spectacular Golden Gate. The ship itself seemed riveted together from sheets of pure gold, illuminated in the low rays of eastern light. But then the scene became unusual, possibly unprecedented. The Grand Princess, a “mega-ship” of the new breed, symbolic of the spectacular rise of cruise travel, was mooring at a vast dockyard that utterly lacked the infrastructure to accommodate it. Weirder still, the dockyard itself, the sprawling Oakland/Alameda complex, one of the busiest in the hemisphere, was vacant!
What next? There are 314 cruise ships loose upon the world’s waves, all of them bound for some port of call, each of them a potential vector of the invisible scourge of COVID-19. The potential carnage is akin to that of 1918, when 675,000 Americans succumbed to The Great Influenza—among 50 million worldwide, by conservative estimates. It seems possible that the imminent spread of the novel coronavirus will mothball the pleasure fleet for an indefinite period of time, while the world weathers the virus crisis. As I write, Princess Cruises and Viking Cruise Line have both announced that they are suspending operations. More are sure to follow…
And yet, the size of the global merchant marine dwarfs the number of cruise ships. There were 53,732 merchant vessels out there as of January 2018. About 5,500 of them are enormous containerships. The ratio is 171 merchant ships to every cruise ship.
As the rate of production of manufactured goods and extraction of raw materials in China declines, while the severity of the Coronavirus outbreak increases, there is less and less cargo for these hulls to carry around the world. Already, the docks of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland/Alameda, usually hyperactively busy with the disgorging of cargo from Asia, have become weirdly sleepy. Soon, there will be vast flotillas of empty ships—bulk carriers for wheat and ore, tankers, car carriers, containerships—anchored off the major ports of the world, riding high in the water, with nothing to haul, and nowhere to go.
All of this adds up to a rare occurrence in recorded history. The Ocean may be virtually free of human activity for a while, and there is no way of telling how long that could last. There is also little way to forecast what effects such a strange event might have. From the perspective of global capitalism, the damage could be devastating and enduring.
But other contrasting priorities could be well served by this ongoing twist of fate. In particular, the disruptions brought by Coronavirus could be a boon for the movements to buy locally made products, to eat regional food sources, and to reduce the giant, greasy carbon footprint of global trade and globe-trotting tourism. An empty Ocean could not only stall the pandemic, it could help humanity to hit the reset button on the dangerously unsustainable status quo of the international economy.
Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is a Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he specializes in the diplomatic and naval history of the Caribbean Sea. During the summer, he directs the Munson Institute graduate program in Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. He regularly lectures on cruises on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door and co-editor of The Dominican Republic Reader, both also published by Duke University Press.