Julie McDonald Commentary: COVID Testing and Cruising During a Pandemic


Somebody’s making money off COVID-19 testing for travelers.

In the past, I’ve occasionally run away to a hotel or retreat to focus on writing a book, but last fall, I stumbled upon cheap fares for cruises. Yes, we’re in a pandemic, so cruise ships lowered prices to lure passengers aboard.

At the time, the pandemic appeared to be declining, so I booked a cruise to the Mexican Riviera for Jan. 24 through 28 and upgraded to a balcony in case I was stuck aboard by a COVID-19 outbreak. The price for two people was $640 for four nights, all meals included, or $320 each. A hotel would cost more.

Silly me, though, I failed to insure the cruise. I booked a flight, which I did insure, and then January rolled around with surges in omicron cases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raising the risk of cruising to Level 4, its highest threat level, because they pack people into close quarters. The agency also listed nearly 120 “Level 4” countries to avoid visiting.

Funny, though, the CDC ranking of its highest threat level is based on countries having more than 500 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people within the past 28 days. Lewis County, with a population of only 80,000, had 751 new cases the week before I left and led the state in hospitalizations. I told my daughter I was probably safer on a cruise ship than running around here, but she pointed out I don’t sleep at Safeway or Walmart.

Another writer friend, Mary Stone, of Castle Rock, who retired from teaching at Lower Columbia College, said she’d been on three cruises since July without contracting COVID-19. I was vaccinated, boosted and armed with anti-bacterial wipes and KN95 masks for the plane ride to Long Beach, California, and five days aboard the ship where masks were required.

The Carnival Cruise line required proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of boarding the ship. We sailed on a Monday, so we needed a test Saturday or Sunday. Kaiser and Providence don’t do tests for travelers, only for people with symptoms or exposure to someone with COVID-19, which makes sense.

That left me and my friend Dawn Shipman, a fantasy writer from Longview, scrambling to find a place to test us. The Lewis County Mall site didn’t operate on weekends. A place near the Portland Airport offered testing for $150 to $195. Ouch. At Vancouver Mall, we could test on Saturday morning at a cost of $129, so we booked appointments for Jan. 22. A week before we left, we received phone calls saying we needed to reschedule as the place no longer operated on weekends. We received a refund.

Still, we needed negative COVID-19 results before boarding. I found a place at the Long Beach Airport in California, and we scheduled tests for Sunday afternoon — and each test cost only $20. But when we stopped over in Phoenix, our captain called in sick, postponing our flight to Long Beach, and we missed our tests. We caught a different flight to Los Angeles and scheduled new appointments for the following morning at the Long Beach Airport. It cost us another $20 each and a few Lyft rides.

On the cruise, I spoke to a couple from Orange County, California, traveling with their daughter. They paid about $550 for COVID-19 tests. Why the discrepancy in costs? The people at the airport testing site didn’t know. In fact, another testing site nearby charged more than $100.

People are pocketing profits during the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Washington Attorney General’s Office investigated complaints about possible fake COVID-19 testing sites. It’s hard to know where to go or what to do, but I was thrilled to find the CityHealth COVID-19 testing site in Long Beach.

As for the cruise, the 12-deck Carnival Radiance could carry up to 2,764 passengers and 1,100 crew members. Our cruise had about 500 passengers, which gave us plenty of space for social distancing. Comedian Doug Williams referred to ours as a Section 8 or ghetto cruise because fares were so low.

At Catalina Island, a gray-haired woman driving a golf cart, which most people do on the island, stopped to ask if we needed a ride. It turned out she was Avalon’s mayor, Anni Marshall. After our tour of the island developed in 1919 by William Wrigley Jr., I’ll never look at chewing gum the same.

I tried without success to convince Dawn to go parasailing, which is on my bucket list (although cruising during COVID was probably risky enough). Dawn wanted to go horseback riding, so I did too … for the third time in my life. Her son told her about Desert Trails, which is operated by a friend’s twin sister.

We connected with Chrystal (Bais) de Dios, nearly 40, who grew up in Camas, and graduated from Washougal High School. She always wanted to live in Mexico and, after high school, moved south but returned often that first year to care for her mother who died of cervical cancer. She’s never regretted moving to Mexico. For nearly a decade, she has run Desert Trails along with her husband, Alex. They have 18 well-cared-for horses and offer mountain rides, beach runs and combination tours along with camping trips. Meeting people is her favorite part of the job. She picked us up not far from where the ship docked.

I’ll admit to a bit of trepidation tottering atop that huge horse, Sahara, with no idea how to control her. She was a snacker, but I couldn’t say much because I am too. For more than two hours, we rode horses along hillsides south of Ensenada and then onto the beach. I loved it that my Fitbit hit 25,000 steps for the day (even though the horse did the bulk of the stepping).

Chrystal and her adorable 2½-year-old son, Luke, accompanied us to La Bufadora, where air trapped in a sea cave explodes and spouts water up to 60 feet in the air. Vendors lined the route to the blowhole hawking their wares while wearing masks. Chrystal mentioned that 85 percent of the people in Ensenada are vaccinated, far more than the 52 percent of fully vaccinated people in Lewis County.

She also spoke of Americans who move to Mexico and bring with them a sense of entitlement, insisting that natives speak English instead of learning the language. Although drug cartels fight among themselves in the region, she said, most of the crime is petty theft. Nobody talks about the cartels to avoid bad publicity. Laborers are fortunate to earn $13 a day — not an hour.

Back on the Carnival Radiance, after a brief rest, I rose to use the restroom and couldn’t stand up straight. A hot tub soak cured the muscle aches from the horse ride.

Although I edited 10 chapters of my novel, I determined a cruise offers too many distractions for productivity. Cruises are for fun, not work.

We enjoyed sunshine and blue skies and safe flights home to Portland. I pulled into my driveway, donned my mask, and sat in the family room to take a $27 COVID-19 home test before hugging my husband.

Safety first. Especially during a pandemic.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.