Consider Yourselves Under Lock-Down

Here we are, just a few days after we returned to the U.S. and, thank God, we made just in time. The impact of the upcoming wave of virus infections and associated deaths is just beginning. I fear that the worst is ahead of us.

Or is it?

First, consider your own situation.

Are you over 65 and/or vulnerable to the virus because of underlying medical conditions?

Are you expecting a child or have toddlers in the house?

Are you young and are stuck in wherever you are because of the recent California government mandate to “shelter in place”?

What makes it worse: The elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions (e.g., unmanaged diabetes, COPD, suppressed or compromised immune systems) are very much more likely to die if they contract the virus. Here are some statistics:

What makes it better: Isolation. It sounds pretty harsh, but the best way to protect those who are vulnerable is to ensure that they have minimal contact with people. Designate someone in the family to be the “shopper” who goes out and gets/delivers essentials to the family.  Consider having goods delivered. [link] If you’re single, then obey the orders of your state and/or local officials.

Are you expecting a child or have toddlers in the house?

What makes it worse: Initial indications are that the virus tends to affect older people, and for whatever reason, there have been very few deaths among babies and young children. The biggest risk is that they can be vectors for the transmission of the disease. They may be infected, but not exhibit symptoms, and put others at risk. Like Grandma who wants to see her grandchild.

What makes it better: The only way to stop the spread of the disease is to isolate. The human population does not have any immunity to the disease, which means that EVERYONE who gets infected WILL get sick. Keep everybody at home and minimize personal contact.

Are you young and are stuck in wherever you are because of the recent California government mandate to “stay at home”?

What makes it worse: Not following the stay at home mandate.

What makes it better: Close reading of the stay at home mandate allows freedoms to go food shopping, go out for medical evaluation, take care of veterinarian services for your pet, or even exercising outside. (Hint: The virus spreads through clouds of snot when an infected person sneezes. If you’re outdoors, the wind disperses the COVID-19 virus into virus heaven.)

What makes it better (2): Everybody gets hours per day back because they don’t have to spend time with their sorry butts in traffic. Theoretically, it could boost the economy because all of us would re-capture a few precious hours of time each day. That could have multiplicative effects if used wisely. What are you going to spend your extra time on?

What makes it better (3): I can be more agile with my time at home and increase my productivity. Example: I want some fresh rolls for tonight’s dinner. So I use my time between meetings and other tasks to get the dough started,  punch down and shape the rolls, ready to pop in the oven to accompany dinner. The steps, by themselves, take little time and the time between steps is efficiently used.

What makes it better (4): I will get to spend extra time with those close to me, be it my immediate family, or treasured pet, if there were a difference. Maybe that’s where my 2 extra hours go.

Stay safe and God bless.

Cruzin’ N Boozin’ – Day 3/4 – A Successfully Executed Contingency Plan

After hearing the bad news that our cruise was cancelled, we were, naturally, very disappointed. Stella and I look forward to our vacation cruises almost from the time the last one is over. Stella researches all the options, we discuss possible itineraries, and we set about planning and preparing, usually over a year in advance. It really is our time together and as we age, we want to enjoy our golden years while we’re still relatively healthy and young. This is a missed opportunity for us that we will never get back.

That being said, there was little time for us to go around feeling sorry for ourselves. At least not right now. Even though we had plane reservations, there was still lots that could go wrong, and what with the rapidly deteriorating travel situation getting back to the US, we really needed to catch a few breaks. So, we decided to relax and recover as best as we could on Sunday so that we would be ready for our long journey home on Monday. Door-to-door, the trip was going to be 24-25 hours, and that’s if everything went as planned, which was by no means a guarantee.

Instead of being too adventurous, we just stuck around the hotel on Sunday touring the grounds. I got caught up on the blog, we tried to sleep a lot, had a few drinks with lunch, then an early dinner to catch a few more hours of sleep until our 1:00 AM wake-up call. The hotel was very nice, and in fact the food was truly one of the best restaurants we had been to. As in better than what I can (or am willing to) make.

The Santiago Sheraton. Really nice hotel.

Lunch in the lounge. May as well have some fun!

Dinner before our flight. This hotel has one of the best restaurants that I’ve been to.

1:00 AM came early. In fact, I was so restless that I woke up at midnight and went ahead and got a head start so we could both shower and finish packing back up. We kept our (now useless) cruise documents in case we needed them later to sort out the refund/compensation situation after the dust settles, and with heavy heart, we packed those away. We met the taxi to take us to the airport and we were there about 2 hours earlier than we probably needed to be, but the traffic was light and it was a good risk mitigation step that was paid for in sleep hours, which we weren’t going to get much use of anyway, so it was a good investment.

Santiago airport at 3:00 AM. Pretty architecture.

We went on an airline that I never heard of: COPA (Compañía Panameña de Aviación). It’s the official Panamanian airline based in Panama City, Panama, and it literally connects all of the Americas – North, Central, and South. They fly only 737’s the fleet is very new, the aircrafts were clean, the service was good, and they were on time. It was founded back in 1947 by some Pan Am execs, and it’s a pretty big operation, on par with other airlines like United, Lufthansa, etc.. It sure outlasted Pan Am!

We had 3 legs on our trip: Santiago, Chile to Panama City, Panama, to Orlando Florida, to San Diego. The layovers were adequate, but we literally walked off each plane and went right into boarding the next, so not really any down time at the airports. The total in-flight time was about 16 hours, and while we tried to get some sleep, that was only in fits and starts. Exactly what one would expect during long flights.

Starting our journey home…

We did catch some breaks on the aircraft. None of the flights were totally packed, so we were able to weasel our way into getting an aisle and window seat with an empty middle so we could stretch out a little and maybe sleep a little better. The other great news was that there were zero weather delays and no mechanical problems. All three flights went like clockwork. Yaay!

If there was one anxious moment, it was the connection in Orlando. We had to go through immigration and customs, and their international terminal is a little wanky and it was difficult for us to figure out where to go. At first, I couldn’t figure out the gate for our next flight and there was nobody at the information desk and the arrival/departure screens only listed flights at the international terminal. Then, I remembered that I had the Flight Aware app on my phone, so I was able to look up the gate. Alas we had to get on a tram and then trek to the opposite side of the airport. Compounding this was the fact that we had to go back through TSA screening, and due to the air travel fiasco caused by the administration’s lack of planning and poor crisis management, we had a 45 minute wait getting through security screening. Looking at the bright side, Orlando was not one of the 13 airports that were designated for travelers flying in from Europe that needed extra health screening. These airports became “chokepoints” of the grandest kind with waits up to 3 hours, causing missed connections, and causing potentially infected people to congregate for hours at a time en-masse, only to be dispersed as potential vectors around the country. Glad I was not part of that mess!

Crowd at Orlando TSA security checkpoint. Yikes!

Yet, the delay almost made us miss our connection! They were getting ready to close the doors when we ran up, out of breath. Good thing they didn’t take our temperature at that point!

We returned to San Diego safe and sound, and thus far, are thankfully asymptomatic. We’re going to stay at home and find out what the quarantine recommendations are and, if we are subject to those, we will do so. We’re also going to have to keep our heads about us and get caught up to speed with developments and act accordingly.

Home Sweet Home!

I’ve given some thought to how one should approach an existential crisis such as the one we’re currently undergoing, and I’ve come up with some ideas:

  1. Don’t panic. Be confident in your ability to weather the situation and don’t succumb to a “herd” mentality. Don’t go out and buy a bunch of toilet paper. That does nothing to contain the virus. Think about how to do without. No toilet paper? Use a washcloth and throw it in the washing machine. Out of hand sanitizer? Learn how to wash your hands properly with soap and water. It’s much more effective than hand sanitizer anyway, and way cheaper. Out of disinfectant spray? Improvise with bleach and water. Out of bread? Learn how to bake it. Use your skills and/or learn new ones to make do. This is going to be a rough few months (at least) but the likelihood of us running out of water, electricity, and food is pretty low, and if you’re fortunate enough to have shelter, that’s really all you need.
  2. Think ahead. Plan as best you can to socially isolate yourself and prepare yourself for the possibility of catching the virus and getting sick.
  3. Stay informed. Listen to the news and web sources to get the best information that you can from multiple sources and make thoughtful decisions based on that information. There’s lots of good info about how the virus is spread, data based predictions about what the various scenarios are, and how our actions as individuals can influence the outcome. “The consistency of the data tells the truth”.
  4. Be compassionate. There are lots of people who will suffer. Many have limited choices and resources if they can’t go to work, either due to quarantine or furlough. Consider getting involved in relief efforts either through direct action, or through donations. We need to help each other out and take care of each other.
  5. Be optimistic and keep your sense of humor. These will be trying times, but we as a people have been through these crises before, and we will not only survive, but we will come out stronger and the better for it. Life is not fair. It does not matter what circumstances you find yourself in. What matters is how you respond. Have faith.

Cruzin’ N Boozin’ Day One/Two – The Long Journey There, And A Very Short Stay

Well, we’re finally underway! The weather here in San Diego is unusually rainy, and the forecast is rain throughout all next week. We need the rain but it is a bit dreary. We’re very much looking forward to some sunny tropical weather!

A Rainy Start

Because San Diego is a popular cruise ship port, we like to try to either start here, end here, or both. Because we’ve completely exhausted the “both” option years ago, our choices become more limited and what we’re left with are the “repositioning” cruises where a ship will go from working one itinerary to another. For this particular cruise, the ship was working South America during their “summer” (December through March), sailing back and forth from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile. We did that cruise a few years ago, so now we’re picking up the ship in Santiago, working its way up the West coast of the Americas on the way back to San Diego. After we disembark, the ship is scheduled to go on from San Diego, to Vancouver BC and start working the Alaska circuit for the “our” summer. But we have to get to Santiago first, and that means a long plane ride.

Despite the rain, our spirits were up and we headed off to the airport to begin our first leg of the journey from San Diego to Dallas-Fort Worth where we would pick up the international flight to Santiago. With the COVID-19 epidemic causing a crisis in the travel industry, we expected that fewer people would be travelling and that was somewhat true. Our seats were in the back of the bus, but fortunately, there were a few open seats, so we hogged a window and isle and had the middle free. A good deal in coach! Nevertheless, while the plane was not packed, it wasn’t exactly empty either. I was a little surprised given the general sense of panic I’m seeing on all forms of media, but I suppose that it takes a few days to adjust given rapidly changing situation.

At the airport


Airport is not too busy.

Our airline itinerary.

We made it to DFW without too much trouble, and we had a layover, so we got a bite to eat and had a short birthday celebration for Stella.

Stella’s Birthday Dinner.

Getting Ready To Board Our International Flight

We boarded our international flight uneventfully. It was on a Boeing 787, and we paid a bit extra to get upgraded “economy plus” seats. For these long hauls, the “business class” has these fancy “cubbies” that you can sleep in, but they are nosebleed expensive. Turns out that the economy plus is what I would otherwise call “first class” – free booze, upgraded meals, separate service, nice roomy seats that recline without banging the person in back of you. The real deal. Totally worth the extra bucks on a 9 hour overnight flight!

Just as we were settling in, the purser came over the intercom and announced that if you were going to embark on a cruise ship in Santiago, that your cruise was cancelled and you needed to deplane. Crap! This was what we were trying to avoid by carefully monitoring the situation, almost hourly. But we’re in a crisis mode, so best to accept things as they are and go on. Just as we get all of our stuff together and head for the exit, the purser comes back on the intercom and announces that the previous call was only for those that got some sort of message from their cruise line. Several of us were going on the same ship so we quickly compared our texts and e-mails and confirmed that we were not affected. So back to our seats we go. I decided to follow up and called the cruise line directly. The person I spoke with then said that Royal Caribbean was canceling all cruises for the next 30 days, following what the Carnival line did the previous day. So, in a panic, I told this to my fellow cruisers and we started to head out again. Finally, as luck would have it, we had a crewmember going to the ship on our flight, and she was in direct contact with headquarters, who gave us the straight story: The cancellation only applied to ships sailing out of the US and any ships underway, or sailing from foreign ports would continue with their original itinerary. So we’re on again! Back to the seats we go.

Since there actually were some folks who had to deplane, we sat around for about an hour. Once we pushed back and we started taxiing, I though all would be well, so I sent my boys a “wheels up” text. That turned out to be premature. The captain came over the intercom and reported that we had a brake overheating problem, so we went back to the gate to have maintenance take a look. It turned out to be a stuck brake caliper, but since the airplane had many (32 of them), we could disable one and still fly. After another hour, the captain came back on the intercom and announced that the maintenance crew could not complete the repair, but that there was another plane that we could use, so we deplaned, this time for real, hustled over to the other aircraft, and waited an additional 90 minutes while they preflighted, fueled, and catered the airplane. We boarded, got settled, and got going, this time for real. Whew!! It’s amazing what a couple of shots of bourbon will do to improve your disposition! Life is good.

Dinner On The Airplane.

Beginning Our Descent To Santiago

Our flight landed around noon, local time, and we de-planed and made it to the gate. We had to go through a basic medical screening right away, but it was pretty, well, basic — taking our temp and answering a few questions on a medical form. From there, we went through immigration and customs, and, lo and behold, a person from the cruise line was waiting for us to get us a ride straight to the hotel. We arrived at the Sheraton, Santiago, one of the best hotels in Santiago, and were treated as you would expect to be at a top notch hotel. We got in our room, and I had a nice lunch with a well-deserved beer (or two), went back to the room for a nap, then it was down for cocktails and dinner.

Arrived In Santiago.

Beer at The Hotel.

Stella and I went to the lounge and ordered the “official” alcoholic beverage of Chile, picso, which is a type of brandy distilled from grapes. It’s highly regulated (distilleries must grow their own grapes, and it can only come from certain regions) and it was wonderful on the rocks! Really looking forward to our vacation!

Then the phone call came.

At first I didn’t answer it because I didn’t recognize the number and I figured they’d leave a message. Stella then looked at her phone and the 3 digit prefix was the same as our travel agent, so I figured I’d better call back. It was, indeed, the travel agent, but I only got to voicemail, so I quickly walked over to the Celebrity Cruise folks, who were still in the hotel lobby. Lo and behold, our cruise was cancelled 2 hours earlier! We found out that there were two other cruise ships in quarantine at San Antonio (our cruise port), so things were degrading fast. Time to get out of Dodge!

I called the Royal Caribbean hotline (parent company of Celebrity) and a representative quickly answered and made travel arrangements for our return. These aren’t as nice as our incoming flight, but the fact that we have them at all makes us extremely fortunate. Additionally, since we aren’t coming from an area that is on the prohibited travel list, we won’t be travelling into one of the DHS designated airports designated for extra screening. I’m hoping we won’t have to go into ordered quarantine when we return to the states, but we will be self-quarantining for 14 days. As of this moment we are asymptomatic, so perhaps luck is still with us.

We decided to make the best of it, have another pisco on the rocks, and have dinner at the hotel. The restaurant was actually quite fabulous, and we were overlooking a very large gathering of a wedding cocktail hour before the reception. Sadly, all of these gatherings, at least in the US, are not going to be happening for a while as we collectively hunker down and settle into a hermit lifestyle.

So, having previous risk mitigation and contingency plans in place, we are well positioned to execute our “plan B” and get our butts home.

Your wishes for good luck are much appreciated and are paying off!

Cruzin’ n Boozin’: Day 0 — Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

We’ve been planning this cruise vacation for over 16 months. And now THIS! It just can’t possibly be. It’s surreal.

Yet despite all the warnings about the COVID-19 epidemic and our personal reservations, we’ve decided to go ahead. What are we thinking?

That’s a good question. But first, a little background on how human beings come to decisions and how our personal interests and beliefs introduce bias. The technical term for this is “confirmation bias”. From Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses.[1] It is a type of cognitive bias. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.

This bias is leveraged by social media through use of targeted messaging and ads (a.k.a. “filter bubbles” or algorithmic editing”) that prioritize information to show individuals what they will tend to agree with and exclude opposing views. Originally developed by social media companies to maximize advertising revenue, and is currently being exploited by our enemies, most prominently Russian trolls, to influence our electoral process and destabilize our country.

Which is why I stay off social media.

Except when I want to bombard you with my own biased views that I try to cleverly hide behind a veil of supposed authority gained from a few minutes of online research.

“If you can’t bedazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (unknown source)

But I digress.

With the confirmation bias of our emotional investment in this vacation in mind, here is how we came to decide to go. As a professional risk manager, I wanted to take a risk management approach because ultimately, we had to evaluate the risks we were taking vs the reward of going. For that, I needed data and facts. I chose three primary sources: the CDC, the State Department, and the cruise line.

The CDC is currently recommending to defer travel on cruise ships. This is because if an infected person boards, the likelihood of transmission is high due to the close quarters on the ship. This is especially true for people who are older (60 years +, and yes, that applies to both of us) because the death rates resulting from a COVID-19 infection are significantly higher for people in this age group due to the fact that your immune system gets weaker as you get older.

So, I’m 62 and Stella is 73 (today, happy birthday baby!) Graphically this does not look very good, but if you read the actual numbers, the death rate is still less than 10%. And this graph does not distinguish between those who have underlying health conditions (e.g., suppressed immune systems, COPD, etc.), from which neither of us suffer from.

The US State Department has issued a Level 3 travel advisory, which is to “reconsider” travel. (Note: the CDC and State Department rating systems are different). This is because the US Government has limited capacity to help you if you get stuck somewhere and you become infected with COVID-19. Additionally they are concerned about you picking up the virus and coming home and being an additional source of transmission. Plus Trump doesn’t want the numbers to look bad, so he’ll keep you floating on your infected cruise ship since you probably won’t vote for him anyway.

Finally, the cruise line: The cruise line that we’re on has not cancelled, but is implementing additional boarding protocols to identify potential carriers before they board. They will be doing temperature screening and asking a bunch of questions about where you’ve been and who you may have been in contact with. These protocols were instituted earlier this week after the cruise line industry met with VP Pence’s COVID-19 task force and came up with a plan to protect their customers to the maximum extent possible.

Now, objectively looking at the above, one might be tempted to follow the recommended deferral of travel — especially because our cruise line is offering to refund our payments in the form of a future cruise credit good through December 2021. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that we’ve invested our time, and more importantly, our emotions, into this trip. So let’s see how this emotional tie to this trip has affected our judgement.

First, the recommendations from the CDC and State Department are general in nature. They don’t take into account the specifics of our cruise itinerary and don’t break down the risk to tailor it to our specific circumstances.

Consider the cruise line and what ships were actually affected recently. We’re cruising on Celebrity, which is owned by Royal Caribbean. The ships that were infected with COVID-19 were from the Princess line, which is owned by Carnival. Carnival cruise lines have had the most troubles over the past number of years, from alcohol-fueled fights among the passengers, to poorly designed/maintained ships that have gone Dead In The Water (DIW), to senior officers not knowing, or at least willing to discuss with me, what lessons they learned from their troubles.  Read this interesting article from the NYT that underscores the sloppy management aboard these particular ships

This is why we will NEVER go on a line under the Carnival umbrella again.

Next, consider how many cruise ships have been affected by COVID-19. Exactly two. Out hundreds (380 to be exact) that are out there. Also consider where they have been. These two cruise ships were involved with passengers from Japan, where the outbreak is severe. Our ship, the Celebrity Eclipse, has been cruising in South America, where the outbreaks are isolated and have very low levels of community transmission. And this ship has not reported any COVID-19 infections, which they are required to do. Now that doesn’t mean that somebody who is infected won’t sneak through the boarding process, but because everybody is getting screened multiple times, I would say that the chances of picking up the virus are as low as, if not lower than, other concentrations of people. Yes, I know that we’re rapidly banning any gatherings of 250 or more (in California anyway), but that’s not accounting for the risk reduction that screening provides. We just don’t have the resources to do the required screening for every gathering in every venue.

Third, our itinerary is entirely through countries that have minimal infections. We’re going to follow the West coast of the americas from Santiago Chile, and return directly to San Diego. So if we get on the ship, and the ship remains clear of the COVID-19 virus, then we are at low risk for subsequent exposure, even considering the tours, which are populated by the same folks that we’re sailing with. In fact, we’re going to be coming from a country that has a HIGHER incidence of community spread, so we’re going from an area of higher infection rates to areas of lower rates.

Fourth, the likelihood of being “stranded” without being granted permission to enter a port has been significantly reduced as a result of the meeting earlier this week between the cruise line industry and the CDC task force. One of the outcomes of this meeting was to establish a protocol to accept a stricken cruise ship and allow disembarkation in a controlled and safe manner. This addresses the situation of the Grand Princess, now disembarking in Oakland, that found themselves in limbo for many days. We shouldn’t have that problem now that the right protocols are in place.

Fifth, our cruise line hasn’t cancelled. Yes, they have a business to run, but they understand that if the risk becomes too great, they will not have future business. Princess cancelled their cruises for 60 days because of the noterarity of their infections and Viking cancelled their cruises because their business is primarily riverine cruises in Europe, where they’re having a pretty significant outbreak and the United States imposed a travel ban.

Sixth, I believe that due to the testing debacle in the United States, the true number of infections are lurking in the background and once we get the testing ramped up, we’ll see an explosion. The graph below shows what is happening in the other current hot spots. We’re on the brink of the exponential upswing experienced by these other countries, so hold on tight!

I would rather defer my exposure to that inevitability by 2-1/2 weeks. It’s good to see that instead of waiting for the incompetent Trump administration to act, state and local authorities are preemptively banning all large gatherings and are moving into the “mitigation” phase of controlling an infectious disease breakout, so maybe there’s hope yet.

Seventh, I was very concerned about somehow contracting the virus and then being a “spreader”. I guess that’s still a concern, but because community spread is happening in the United States already, I’m probably just as likely to get infected here as I would be on the cruise ship, and even if I do become infected on the cruise, then the disembarkation protocols will minimize the risk of exposure to healthy people. You really can’t say the same thing about the “self isolation” that is currently occurring here because you’re dependent on folks following the rules by themselves.

So, those are my variegated reasons for deciding to go. We have followed the CDC and State Department guidelines to “reconsider” travel, and our conclusion is to follow through with our plans. We’re not being told NOT to go, the cruise line and airline hasn’t cancelled, we have taken all of the precautions recommended by the CDC and cruise line, and we consider the risk acceptably low.

Time will tell if we made the right call. Wish us luck, as we wish you all the same.