Pandemic Cruising

The first major cruise ship to depart from a U.S. port since COVID hit in 2020 has sailed. And do you know what? Everybody onboard had a great time. Oh…and nobody got COVID. The return to cruising has been the biggest non-event since I don’t know what. Just as the cruise lines planned. Their exhaustive and stringent healthy sail protocols can’t eliminate the possibility of someone on a cruise ship testing positive for COVID, but they can reduce the risk of contracting the virus onboard and mitigate the impact, and they’ve done that.

The feedback we’ve received from our colleagues who have already cruised has been positive. There are some changes to how cruise ships operate in keeping with each cruise line’s approach to COVID safety, and I’ll cover those in this article. For the most part those changes haven’t interfered with passengers’ ability to enjoy themselves. Oh sure, people still complain about the chaos at embarkation and debarkation, and about the food service, and about the price of drinks…the same stuff people complained about pre-pandemic. And that’s a very good sign. As they said when I was in the Army, when the troops are complaining about the food, everything else must be going fairly well.

Note: For this article I only looked at major cruise lines and their subsidiary brands sailing ships in U.S. and Caribbean markets, and with a capacity of greater than 500 passengers. There are a number of small ship operators, particularly in Alaska, that are not subject to the same constraints the CDC places on the larger cruise lines, and I did not consider them for this article.

By the Numbers (as of 8 August)

>100,000: Number of cruise passengers that have sailed from U.S. or Caribbean ports since June.
65: Number of cruises that have sailed from U.S. or Caribbean ports since June.
19: Number of cruise ships now operating in U.S. or Caribbean waters.
12: Total number of positive COVID tests reported for passengers aboard these cruise ships.
10: Total number of those testing positive for COVID who were asymptomatic.
0: Total number of cruise ship passengers experiencing serious COVID symptoms.
0: Total number of cruise ship passengers requiring hospitalization.
0: Total number of passenger deaths attributed to cruise ship COVID cases.
0: Total number of cruise ship itineraries disrupted due to COVID.

The cruise lines have been, and continue to be, pursuing a course of risk mitigation and management, rather than the CDC’s preferred approach of total risk avoidance. These data support the success of the cruise lines’ approach and indeed show cruising to be safer for vaccinated people than many land-based activities.

COVID Prevention Measures

Each cruise line has implemented its version of the healthy sail protocols I reported on last year. Enhanced sanitation has been and continues to be at the forefront of cruise ship safety protocols, along with testing and vaccination. All cruise ships have operated initially at limited capacity with a gradual increase as sailings are successfully completed with no issues.

All cruise lines require passengers to disclose if they have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus as a condition for sailing. Contrary to claims from well-known athletes, politicians, celebrities, and anyone else with an opinion and a social media account, this is not a HIPAA violation. Nor is it a violation for cruise lines to treat anyone opting not to disclose their vaccination status the same as if they were unvaccinated. For more on HIPAA and how it relates to COVID, check out the HHS web site. The issue of whether or not cruise lines can require passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a politically charged hot mess. I won’t bother to unwrap all the theater and rhetoric involved with it in this article. Bottom line is that each cruise line is implementing their return to cruising just as they planned to since spring.

The cruise lines have demonstrated great flexibility with adjusting to the changing environment which means these policies and practices are subject to change, and the actual cruise experience will vary even from one ship to another within the same brand. With that in mind, here is a rundown on the three major cruise lines and what you can expect on your next cruise.

COVID Vaccination Requirements – Carnival
Carnival Cruise Lines and subsidiary brands require vaccinations for all passengers on their ships. They get around the Florida legislation prohibiting a vaccine mandate by permitting cruisers to request an exemption to the vaccination requirement for medical or religious reasons. Exemption requests are individually adjudicated and are only approved to the extent the total compliment of vaccinated passengers does not drop below the CDC’s 95% requirement. In this sense, any exemption request they refuse isn’t rejected because of the passenger’s vaccination status. It is rejected because of the capacity controls established by the CDC. It is splitting a fine hair, but one the State of Florida seems to be comfortable allowing.

Unvaccinated Passengers – Carnival
Carnival caters to families, and as such they intended from the outset of their return to sailing to cruise with unvaccinated passengers. They just planned to limit those unvaccinated passengers to children under the age of 16. Although Carnival’s approach to complying with Florida’s prohibition against vaccine mandates is to consider unvaccinated adults for an exemption, I gotta believe those exemption requests will be the last passengers approved to cruise, and then only after every vaccinated adult booked on the cruise that might be bringing along unvaccinated children has been accommodated. Passengers that refuse to disclose their COVID vaccination status are treated as though they are unvaccinated and must also apply for an exemption to the line’s vaccination policy. All passengers considered unvaccinated are required to wear a wrist band which vaccinated passengers do not wear. Additionally, unvaccinated passengers sailing on an exemption must comply with additional COVID related restrictions such as masking in indoor public areas of the ship, observe social distancing, they won’t have the same access to the ship’s public areas as vaccinated passengers, and they are subject to additional COVID testing at their own expense periodically throughout the cruise, depending on the cruise length.

COVID Vaccination Requirements – Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean and subsidiary brands strongly recommend vaccination for all passengers, but they stop short of requiring it. Rather than requiring unvaccinated passengers to wear an identifying wrist band as Carnival Cruise Lines does, Royal Caribbean provides an identifying wrist band to their vaccinated passengers. Seems backwards to me but I suppose it eliminates the chance an unvaccinated passenger could remove the wristband. Unvaccinated passengers get a hole punched in their cruise card, which effectively limits their ability to go into parts of the ship designated for vaxed passengers only. Royal Caribbean is subject to the same CDC restriction that requires at least 95% of passengers to be fully vaccinated, and like Carnival with their primary demographic being families, there aren’t likely to be too many unvaccinated adults on a Royal Caribbean ship.

Unvaccinated Passengers – Royal Caribbean
Like Carnival, Royal Caribbean planned all along to permit unvaccinated children on their ships, but they also intended to limit the number of unvaccinated adults. Unvaccinated passengers will be required to undergo additional COVID testing during the cruise at their own expense, and they will find many of Royal Caribbean’s most popular ship venues off limits. Areas designated as off limits for unvaccinated passengers include the casino, the spa (though there will be limited hours for unvaccinated guests to use the fitness area), several of the smaller specialty restaurants, the indoor pool, and most of the ship’s bars and lounges to include the iconic Schooner Bar. Unvaccinated passengers must comply with additional restrictions such as masking and social distancing, though enforcing this will be problematic and not likely to succeed.

COVID Vaccination Requirements – Norwegian Cruise Lines
Norwegian Cruise Lines took a different approach with their return to cruising than either Carnival or Royal Caribbean. From the outset Norwegian made it clear that they planned to require proof of vaccination from all passengers, even though they market to families. In a press release they acknowledged that action meant they would be temporarily restricting their ships to passengers 16 years and older who were fully vaccinated, and that they hoped to revise that policy by October when COVID vaccines are expected to be approved for children younger than 16. Their first cruises set sail out of Seattle, and since the State of Washington has no prohibition against business requiring vaccines, to date all of their cruises have been limited to vaccinated passengers only.

Unvaccinated Passengers – Norwegian Cruise Lines
Rather than try to mollify the State of Florida for cruises scheduled to sail from ports in Florida, Norwegian Cruise Lines took the state on in the courts. They filed a suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s vaccine mandate ban, and just last week filed for temporary injunctive relief from having to comply with the law. The federal judge assigned to hear the case approved Norwegian’s request for a temporary injunction, which the State of Florida has appealed to the next higher court. This little bit of political theater will play out in the coming days, and I expect Norwegian will win out. When Norwegian joins Carnival and Royal Caribbean with their return to cruising from Florida ports on August 15th it will be on their terms, with all passengers required to be fully vaccinated, or not at all. Norwegian Cruise Lines has made it clear they will move their ships out of Florida’s ports rather than be forced to accept the state’s limitation on their ability to determine how to safely run a cruise.

COVD Testing pre-boarding
All major cruise lines are requiring passengers to fill out a health screening form online and to submit negative COVID test results taken within 72 hours of boarding. Any passenger without a COVID test, or with a positive COVID test result, will not be permitted to board regardless of mitigating circumstances. Some cruise lines have made arrangements for rapid antigen testing at the pier, at the passenger’s expense.

COVID Testing during cruise
Any unvaccinated passenger who is allowed to board a cruise ship is required by the cruise lines to undergo additional COVID testing. This additional testing will be at the passengers’ expense. The cruise lines will administer the necessary test(s) at specified intervals throughout the cruise, depending on its duration.

COVID Testing pre-debarkation
All passengers returning to the U.S. are required to present a negative COVID test result taken within 72 hours prior to their return. Cruise lines have arranged to provide this testing during the last day or two of their sailings and are offering this service to all passengers for no additional cost.

Isolation and Contact Tracing
Any passenger with a positive COVID test during a cruise will be isolated in accordance with CDC regulations and the cruise line’s COVID quarantine protocol until they can be retested. Contact tracing will be initiated which will identify passengers and crew with close contact. Those individuals will also be isolated until they too can be retested. All retests associated with a positive COVID test will be a PCR test. Any passenger testing positive at that point will remain in isolation until the next port call, at which time they will be escorted off the ship and returned to their home via private medical transportation.

Trip Insurance Required for Unvaccinated Passengers
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean require unvaccinated passengers to show proof of trip insurance that includes medical and medical evacuation coverage. The CDC requires cruise lines to provide for private transportation for anyone testing positive for COVID, but it doesn’t require the cruise lines to bear that expense.

On-board Experience – Masking
All cruise facilities in the U.S. are subject to CDC requirements. That means all passengers regardless of their vaccination status are required to wear masks throughout the entire embarkation and debarkation process. In addition, given the usual congestion and chaos associated with port calls, cruise lines are also requiring masks be worn during debarkation and embarkation at all port calls, during transfer operations aboard tenders, and on land as required by local governments.

Once on board the cruise ship most passengers regardless of their vaccination status remove their masks and keep them off until debarkation for a port call. Recently in response to the surge in the COVID Delta variant infections, several cruise lines are now requiring that all guests wear masks while in public indoor spaces, except when actively eating and drinking. This is an example of the dynamic nature of COVID safety measures imposed by the cruise lines as they seek to provide the safest environment possible for their guests, and it is the type of change that passengers should expect as long as the COVID virus surges. Just how rigidly the individual ships enforce the mask requirement is another story.

On-board Experience – Social Distancing and the Life Boat Drill
Social distancing as we practiced last year is another COVID safety measure expected to feature heavily in cruise ships’ return to sailing, but that was before the wide availability of COVID vaccines. Right now, social distancing isn’t required for vaccinated passengers. Access to venues where crowding is prevalent, like the most popular bars, will be limited to vaccinated passengers only. As with masking, social distancing is one of those COVID safety measures that is subject to change as the threat posed by COVID infections changes. This extends to the mandatory Coast Guard Safety Drill, aka the lifeboat drill, which is now a video that you view in the comfort of your stateroom. What an improvement over the days of roasting on deck, sandwiched like a sardine between the rest of the passengers in an uncomfortably close mass of humanity.

On-board Experience – Dining
The dining experience aboard the major cruise ships is largely unchanged from before COVID, with a few notable exceptions. Buffets will continue as a cruise ship dining staple, but they will no longer be self-service. Crew members will serve passengers from the same wide range of dining options as pre-pandemic. Beverage service at coffee, water, and juice dispenses will also be crew-served. And of course, dining in the main dining rooms and specialty restaurants will continue to be table side ala carte service. Social distancing will be enforced in dining rooms through limited seating arrangements. Large tables accommodating more than 6 guests won’t be filled, though some lines are making allowances for family groups traveling together to be seated together. Some cruisers have reported no table linens being used (hygiene theater) and that restaurants are using online menus accessed through a QR code and smart phone, so be sure to download the cruise line’s app and keep your phone charged if you want to eat. Room service will also continue to be provided with the menu accessible via QR code found in your cabin.

Port Calls and Shore Excursions
This is one aspect of cruising that isn’t business as usual. The cruise lines are subject to local laws and COVID restrictions for the ports they are visiting, and most of the Caribbean and Mexico are nowhere close to the U.S. when it comes to their rate of COVID vaccination. They welcome the return of cruisers and the revenue that comes with them, but they are taking steps to ensure COVID isn’t included in what cruisers leave behind. Masks and social distancing are required in most ports visited, at least indoors. Unvaccinated cruisers are required to remain on the ship in some ports, and when they can go ashore they are restricted to booking excursions through the cruise line that limit their contact with unvaccinated locals. The highlight of most cruises continues to be the stops at the cruise line’s private island or beach break. While those are still subject to local laws and restrictions, the shoreside environment is treated as an extension of the ship.

Recap

Cruising is back! Janet and I have six cruises booked between now and next March, four of which are yet this year. We are cruising twice with Norwegian, the first cruise departing in just a few short weeks at the end of August. We are also cruising twice with Virgin Voyages, an exciting newcomer to the cruise industry that I’m eager to share after our first cruise with them in October. Janet and I chose our first pandemic cruises carefully, and I can’t wait to experience them and share our experiences with all of you. Keep an eye on our social media pages toward the end of August and join us virtually board the NCL Gem as we return to cruising!

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