Some practicalities get more attention than others during a pandemic, but quarantines don’t happen by themselves. At such times, cruise security staff have to ensure the safety of tense, isolated guests with multiple types of fever, and do so while keeping themselves protected from infection. It doesn’t even take a confirmed case for things to get challenging.

In late February, after the MSC Meraviglia was denied permission to dock in either Jamaica or the Cayman Islands, videos emerged of a brawl in the ship’s ‘infinity atrium’. The clips appear to show guests scuffling with crew members and attacking a grand piano, before, amid cheers and whistles from the space’s packed crystal staircases, security staff intervene with pepper spray.

“People were getting hyped. We were locked in a ship and couldn’t get off in the ports of Jamaica or Grand Cayman,” Bianca Haddad, who filmed some of the disturbance, told Storyful. “People were becoming frustrated and began fighting with crew members. To stop the fight they sprayed us with pepper spray.”

Speaking anonymously to the Italian tabloid TPI, another guest on the Meraviglia suggested that passengers were protesting the lack of information about whether there were Covid-19 cases on the ship. “They did not tell us anything, and since the safety of 4,700 people was also at stake, we decided to protest”, quoted TPI. “There was a gentleman who said he was a gilet jaune [yellow vest] [and was] even a little aggressive, who proposed to the other passengers [that we should] protest against the crew of the ship that gave no answers, and many people gave him a hand, including me, because it was right to do something.”

MSC saw things slightly differently. “The video can be misunderstood,” a representative told TPI. “Unfortunately, two drunk guests became aggressive and violent towards some crew musicians who were entertaining all the people in the ship’s lobby. Once on the scene, the members of the security service were forced to use a minimum of force necessary to calm the two guests in question, with whom the matter was subsequently clarified and resolved in a peaceful and serene way.

“It was clear that this was an unpleasant episode, but unfortunately it was necessary to intervene to stop the attitude of these two people endangering, not only the musicians who had been attacked, but also other guests.”

The statement provided to Storyful conveyed largely the same message, although it asserted that the guests had first tried to grab the musicians’ microphone, and only became “violent and aggressive” once security personnel were on the scene. TPI’s source added that the man who was pepper-sprayed “only wanted to ask the truth”.

“Security officers restrained the two guests and minimum force was used,” continued MSC’s statement to Storyful. “They were immediately taken to the medical centre as a precaution.”

Passengers were finally able to disembark at the port of Cozumel, Mexico, after authorities ascertained that the flu-like symptoms displayed by one guest and one crew member were not caused by Covid-19. From there, the ship returned to Miami. MSC promised full refunds for the disrupted holiday and thanked the vast majority of passengers for being “incredibly considerate and sympathetic” towards the ship’s crew. “We couldn’t have hoped for a better crowd,” a spokesperson added before the cruise was over. “Also, our crew are going above and beyond to ensure people enjoy their time on board. We understand people may be disappointed about this particular cruise, but we will under no circumstances accept any violence.”

Trigger happy

The speed with which MSC Meraviglia’s security staff appeared to resort to using pepper spray has drawn criticism, but there can be few more troubling combinations for crew than Covid-19 and the gilets jaunes. And yet, as unusual a situation as that might have been, it serves as a valuable illustration of some of the central challenges and considerations for maintaining order at sea.

The closest analogue cruise operators have to the novel coronavirus is norovirus, which had already necessitated a clear commitment to hand hygiene among both guests and crew, as well as a procedure for quarantining guests in their cabins and delivering all meals via room service. Although ships struck by other outbreaks are sometimes quarantined themselves, responses to on-board outbreaks of norovirus increasingly involve disembarking passengers to disinfect the ship, with some operators even resorting to fumigation. Back in January 2019, when 500 guests on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas were struck with acute gastroenteritis from suspected norovirus, the ship ended its voyage a day earlier than scheduled. Company spokesman Owen Torres explained that, “We think the right thing to do is to get everyone home early rather than have guests worry about their health.” Royal Caribbean even offered full refunds to all passengers.

Similarly, when fears of a novel, fast-spreading and deadly virus aren’t leading ports to deny berths, one of the best ways to deal with violent and aggressive guests is simply to remove them. This punishment is usually reserved for repeat offenders, although it has been used on large groups. In 2018, the Carnival Legend even made an unscheduled stop to remove a family of 23, nine days into a 10-day cruise in the South Pacific. Without their most reliable trump card, it’s possible that security staff on MSC Meraviglia felt that it was necessary to act as swiftly and decisively as possible.

Outbreaks of violence and norovirus are rare, and practically unheard of for both to occur together. And fears of getting too close to anyone else usually lowers one’s prospect of physical conflict. As yet, there are no reports of any violence on ships that were actually quarantined to contain Covid-19, but there have been numerous tense moments. “It’s like being in prison,” Denise McConkey, a British passenger on the Diamond Princess told Good Morning Britain in early March. “I left my cabin yesterday, and they told me they were going to get security to put me back in the cabin,” added her husband, Leo McConkey. “Otherwise they were going to lock me up.”

The McConkeys were concerned for the well-being of members of their travelling party who were staying on other decks, including Denise McConkey’s elderly parents and an immunocompromised friend. A medically necessary lockdown is a different issue than that faced by staff on MSC Meraviglia, but again it seems that a lack of communication, or information, played a significant part.

Lack is one way of putting it. The official reason given for MSC Meraviglia’s quick return to Miami was bad weather, and in the proceeding weeks numerous ships that encountered similar problems have opted to make similar tweaks to their on-board messaging. On MV Seabourn Encore, for instance, Daily Telegraph cruise writer Jane Archer began to “smell a rat” after three consecutive stops on her tour of the South Pacific were cancelled on account of questionably “rough seas” and “strong winds”. Sure enough, when the ship was finally allowed to dock in Adelaide, the captain announced that the cruise was over, eventually telling Archer that Seabourn and the Australian authorities had spent days negotiating where the ship could dock so passengers could get home.

“People forget that they can’t make rational decisions when they’ve consumed that amount of alcohol.”
Richard Ward, University of Bournemouth

Guests were given a day to explore the city, or do as they pleased, before they had to disembark the following morning. On board that night, as the “strangest cruise” of Archer’s life drew to a close, she noted that many “were getting their money’s worth of [all-inclusive] booze”.

Hung-over to dry

In an act of cheek that now seems like it comes from another world, TPI speculated that the symptoms aboard MSC Meraviglia that so worried ports and passengers might have been the result of excess alcohol. MSC seems to be on safer ground, blaming liquor for the violent response.

Guests on luxury Seabourn ships are not given to throwing either fists or furniture, but similar all-inclusive drinks packages can cause headaches for staff when other distractions disappear. There was a reason for the joke in TPI, as Richard Ward, a lecturer in hospitality at the University at Bournemouth who has studied the effect of alcohol on tourist behaviour, knows well.

“People feel: ‘I’ve already paid for it, I’m going to consume as much as I possibly can in order to get value from it’,” he says. “Even between people that know each other, scuffles are quite common in allinclusive. People forget that they can’t make rational decisions when they’ve consumed that amount of alcohol. Therefore, violence erupts because people can’t control the anger within them, and you get all measure of negative behaviours.”

As recent spates of panic buying have shown, viruses also have a way of bypassing rationality. Still, Dr Jennifer Holland, a former employee of the cruise industry whose PhD thesis covered how the perception of risk impacts consumer decision-making on cruises, notes that guests very rarely drink enough all-inclusive alcohol to either start fights or prevent packages turning a profit. “Generally speaking, it doesn’t really change their behaviour,” she says. “They have maybe an extra drink or two a day.”

Instead of worrying about the negative behavioural impacts of all-inclusive drinks packages, interviewees quoted in Holland’s thesis liked the fact that such schemes made it easier for them to control their holiday budgets. The ability to determine so much of what will happen on a cruise holiday beforehand was perceived very favourably by the interviewees that had cruised before. Although the impacts of Covid-19 are not controlled by cruise lines, she found that even passengers who think about the possibility of falling ill at sea “place enormous trust in the cruise lines to look after them” – sometimes over the medical facilities at destination ports.

“When you’re there, you don’t feel you have to take responsibility for you,” summarised one of Holland’s interviewees. “You don’t have to make the effort to do anything – which sounds a bit odd, but I think I’ve reached that age [where] that’s quite an appeal.” The sense of homeliness and familiarity that cruisers tend to find on ships reduces their perception of risk, which can create problems if the trust they place in crews makes it harder to enforce a quarantine at sea than it might be on land. Equally, quarantining guests in their cabins makes it very difficult for them to coordinate the sorts of actions advocated by the gilet jaune on MSC Meraviglia.

Communication is key to combatting the ravages of Covid-19, especially at sea where health margins are so much narrower. It is up to crews, therefore, to ensure that passengers understand what is going on, and how to remain as safe as possible.


Passengers stuck in a 14- day quarantine on board the Diamond Princess.
Princess Cruises


People aboard the Diamond Princess that tested positive for Covid-19.