Pandemic Cruising Update — Get the Vax!

There have been major developments in the cruise industry following my post on pandemic cruising…enough so that an update to that post is warranted. First and probably most impactful, virtually all adult passengers sailing aboard cruise ships departing from any U.S. port are now required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and to show proof of vaccination before being allowed to board. Second, all passengers regardless of vaccination status will be required to present proof of a negative COVID test prior to boarding, and some cruise lines are requiring additional pier side COVID testing. And lastly, all cruise lines have expanded their mask mandates to include vaccinated passengers. These changes are mostly the result of the cruise lines adjusting to changes in the virus as well as a changing regulatory environment. Here is a rundown on each of those changes in detail.

Passengers departing on a cruise ship from any port in the U.S. who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination will be required to show proof that they are fully vaccinated  before being allowed to board. That is a major change from my prior post where Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines along with their subordinate brands allowed at least some unvaccinated adult passengers to sail with them from ports in Florida (Disney hadn’t yet announced their policy at the time I wrote the original article). Now all major cruise lines, including Disney, have announced that passengers must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination before they will be allowed to board. This change still allows for children under the age of 12 who aren’t eligible for the vaccine to cruise, and theoretically a very small number of adults with a documented exemption from vaccination due to medical reasons, but the bar on any medical exemption is high and frankly approvals are likely to be few. Cruise ships continue to be constrained by the CDC’s mandate that, even accounting for children not eligible for vaccination, at least 95% of all cruise passengers on each ship and sailing must be fully vaccinated.

The new vaccine policies came about after the government of The Bahamas became one of several Caribbean Islands to levy their own COVID vaccination requirements. Effectively, cruise ships can’t dock at any port in the Bahamian Island chain, to include the cruise lines’ popular “private” islands and beaches which fall under the authority of the Government of The Bahamas, unless all crew members and eligible passengers are fully vaccinated against COVID.

At about the same time as the vaccination requirement announced by The Bahamas, Norwegian Cruise Lines won their request for a temporary injunction against the State of Florida and its ban on vaccine mandates while that state law’s constitutionality is challenged in federal court. That means at least for now the courts are siding with Norwegian Cruise Lines and allowing them to impose a vaccine mandate for all passengers on their ships. Between the new Caribbean Island vaccine mandates and NCL’s successful legal action, all barriers standing in the way of vaccine mandates have been removed and the cruise lines moved quickly to require COVID vaccination for all eligible passengers.

Norwegian Cruise Lines remains the only cruise line to implement their own outright COVID vaccine mandate requiring vaccines for all passengers regardless of age, which effectively bans families with children under the age of 12 from cruising with NCL. At least until the FDA approves a version of the COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12 years old, or until NCL revises their COVID vaccination policy. All other cruise lines are complying with vaccine requirements imposed by the Caribbean nations they visit, but the result is effectively the same…if you are an adult and want to take a cruise that departs from a U.S. port, you must be vaccinated. Given the high infection rates driven by the Delta variant and continued slow pace of vaccination throughout the Caribbean, the cruise line vaccine requirements are not likely to go away anytime soon. The good news is that neither is cruising!

Another update I need to make to my pandemic cruising post is more of a correction than an update, and the somewhat related addition of a caveat to the “By the Numbers” section. In my original post I noted that all cruise lines were requiring COVID testing of all passengers prior to boarding, which I later learned wasn’t correct. Some cruise lines, most notable Carnival, did not require pre-cruise COVID testing for fully vaccinated passengers departing from some ports. That has since changed as all cruise lines now require all passengers departing from all ports, regardless of the passenger’s vaccination status, to provide negative COVID test results when they check in for their cruise. Some require additional pier side COVID testing prior to boarding. All of which is to say my original statement is now accurate. If you want to cruise you have to get tested, and now you have to be fully vaccinated as well.

As far as the “By the Numbers” caveat, originally I listed the number of passenger deaths attributed to cruise ship COVID cases as zero. While that is still true, and even more passengers have safely sailed without incident since my post, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge the death of a 77-year-woman from COVID a little less than two weeks after falling ill aboard a Carnival cruise ship earlier this month. Carnival released a statement after the woman’s death saying in part, “We are very sorry to hear about the death of a guest who sailed on Carnival Vista. Regrettably, there is a fair amount of disinformation about the circumstances of this matter. The guest almost certainly did not contract COVID on our ship, and she was assisted with expert medical care on board and was ultimately evacuated from Belize after we provided a resource to her family. We have continued to provide support to her family and are not going to add to their sadness by commenting further.”

The final major change since my pandemic cruise post has to do with masks. I noted that masks were required by most cruise lines for all passengers regardless of vaccination status in the cruise terminal, and throughout embarkation and debarkation. But until recently, as soon as a cruise ship set sail masking policies were relaxed, at least for fully vaccinated passengers. Enforcement of masking policies for unvaccinated passengers was sporadic, and in some cases non-existent.

As more has become known about the Delta variant, to include an increase in the number of breakthrough COVID cases involving fully vaccinated individuals, cruise lines have tightened and expanded their mask policies with the specifics regarding where and when masks are required varying between cruise lines. What seems to be common to all cruise lines is that masks are not required in cabins, on balconies, or when outside on deck or in the pool areas, but they are required for all passengers in confined indoor spaces such as the elevators and casino regardless of vaccination status. The cruise lines have also gotten more specific about what constitutes a proper mask…neck gaiters, open chin bandanas and scarves, and face masks with valves do not meet the minimum public health standards and are not permitted. It remains to be seen how aggressively the ships’ staffs will enforce their new masking requirements.

There have been no cases of COVID reported aboard any cruise ship operating in or from U.S. ports or waters since the cruise lines implemented their collective new policies of mandatory vaccinations for eligible passengers and all crew members, mandatory testing with negative COVID test results prior to boarding a cruise ship and expanded requirements to mask up in public indoor spaces once ships are underway. While there will likely continue to be the occasional passenger testing positive for COVID-19, cruising continues to be as safe as the industry can make it, and safer than just about any land-based activity.

Cruising is a discretionary leisure activity that involves individual risk and choice decisions. For now, Janet and I are comfortable with cruising. We are fully vaccinated, we plan to get the booster shot(s) as available and required, and we accept the need to mask up both when required by public health officials and we impose it on ourselves even when not required based on the local circumstances and our personal level of risk tolerance at the time. Our first pandemic cruise departs in a few days as we sail aboard Norwegian’s Gem out of Miami. We just got our negative COVID test results and are packing our bags! We’ll report back to you all once we have our first pandemic cruise under our belts to let you know if we still feel comfortable with cruising, and to give you a sense of the shipboard environment we experienced. Until then, if you want to cruise you’ll have to get the vax, endure the test, and wear the mask!

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