LONG BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) - With a white captain's hat perched on his head, Calvin Ballard seemed relaxed as he waited to depart on his first-ever cruise to Mexico, unfazed by the possibility of being trapped on a ship under siege by an outbreak of coronavirus.
Like many fellow vacationers streaming onto an ocean liner docked near Los Angeles, Ballard said he was well aware that passengers aboard other cruises had ended up stranded for weeks, far from home, and he vowed to take special care to stay healthy. Nonetheless, he was determined to have a good time.
"What we're planning on doing is washing our hands often, trying not to touch things and then touch our mouths, and just being aware of how we come into contact with people - the smart stuff," the 55-year-old asset manager from Orange, California, said cheerfully. "We're focusing on enjoying ourselves."
Ballard and his wife, Judy, 50, sporting a sailor's cap, were among some 2,350 Carnival Cruise Line passengers who departed on Thursday from the Port of Long Beach on a three-day voyage to the resort city of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja coast.
From those pausing for interviews with Reuters just outside the terminal, it was clear most passengers had packed extra hand sanitizer with their sunscreen and would likely approach the food buffet lines with greater trepidation than in the past.
All readily acknowledged that the coronavirus scare and stories of cruise ships under quarantine in Cambodia and Japan were not far from their minds.
"We've all heard the horror stories," said Andrew MacKenzie, 37, from Napa, California, as he waited with a buddy before boarding the Carnival Imagination.
But all professed they had made peace with the idea of being herded into relatively close quarters with hundreds of strangers, and were resolved to follow meticulous hand hygiene and keep a safe distance from anyone who appeared sick.
Embarking passengers said they also took comfort knowing their North American getaway was far from the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic, which has infected more than 75,000 people and killed over 2,200. The overwhelming bulk of cases and deaths are in China.
"Hopefully we'll be just fine," said Shirley Sosin, 67, travelling with her friend, Bernadette Neve, 53, both of them registered nurses from Fresno.
They booked their trip well before the coronavirus outbreak but felt reassured by steps Carnival said it has instituted to minimize the risk, including more rigorous pre-cruise health screenings and "enhanced onboard sanitation measures."
A central precaution is a strict prohibition against any passengers or crew who have been to China, Hong Kong or Macau during the previous 14 days - the presumed incubation period of the virus. The cruise line promised full refunds for passengers denied boarding.
CRUISE EARNINGS TAKE A HIT
Although the carrier said it is operating as usual in North America and Australia, its parent, Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise ship company, is taking a major hit from coronavirus-related disruptions of its business in Asia.
The company, which ended 2019 with adjusted earnings per share of $4.40, has projected its 2020 financial performance will be diminished by 55 to 65 cents a share, including passenger compensation for cancelled bookings.
Paul Meade, 57, a resident of Lincolnshire, England, capping a family visit to Utah with a quick trip to Mexico, said he and his wife were "following the (coronavirus) story on the news."
"But a three-day cruise from L.A., I don't think there's anything to worry about," he said. "We do know the precautions for good hygiene, and we practice them anyway, so I don't think there's reason to be overly concerned."
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, agreed there was little to fear from coronavirus, in light of precautions taken by cruise lines.
"The risk of someone getting the flu is infinitely greater than the risk of getting coronavirus if you're cruising in the Western Hemisphere, or even to Hawaii," he said.
Schaffner said cruise lines have done much in recent years to improve disinfectant measures and training of personnel in good hygiene, reducing the frequency of onboard outbreaks of food-borne and respiratory illnesses.
Nevertheless, he said diligent hand-washing, proper covering of coughs and sneezes and self-reporting of illnesses are key to curtailing germs, including seasonal flu and norovirus, a severe intestinal disease that has been particularly troublesome at sea.
Coronavirus is spread primarily through tiny droplets coughed or sneezed directly from an infected person into the face of someone nearby, as opposed to the more contagious "airborne" transmission of a virus like measles, which can remain suspended in enclosed spaces and be breathed in hours after being exhaled by sick individuals, Schaffner said.
Although coronavirus can also be picked up from surfaces, droplet spread is seen as its principal vector, so "widespread disinfection is unlikely to be effective" in curbing its transmission, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.
Overall, the risk of contracting coronavirus on a cruise in North America remains "very, very low," Schaffner said, adding that his advice to someone expressing an interest in taking such a trip: "Bon voyage."
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Long Beach; additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank McGurty and Daniel Wallis)
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