Pandemic Cruising: COVID Safety

Janet and I just returned from our first cruise in over 18 months, and I want to share our thoughts and experience with pandemic cruising. Let me just say from the outset that we had a great time. To be clear…no cruise line can guarantee zero risk of passengers being exposed to COVID while on a cruise, no more so than any land based public facility can. What they can and are doing is take steps to minimize that risk, and each cruise line has adopted precautions that meet and in most cases exceed CDC requirements. Cruise lines have put up an impressive track record of safe cruising since they resumed sailing from U.S. ports earlier this summer, and Janet and I both felt quite comfortable with the risk throughout our cruise. So much so that we will be cruising again in October.

The CDC requirements are rigid, but they allow space for cruise lines to make trade-offs between more restrictive screening measures up front vs more restrictive protective measures once guests are onboard. We chose Norwegian Cruise Lines for our first pandemic cruise because they take the approach of requiring the most restrictive screening measures up front. Norwegian requires all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated, and they require all passengers to test negative for COVID at a pier-side testing center prior to checking in for the cruise. That approach allows Norwegian to offer an onboard experience most similar to pre-COVID cruising without compromising passenger safety.

Pre-Boarding COVID Precautions and Check-in

You’ll probably face a greater threat of exposure to COVID during your trip to the cruise terminal than you will at the terminal or at any time onboard the ship. As part of the online check-in prior to arriving at the cruise terminal, Norwegian Cruise Lines assigns arrival times for each guest allowing them to control social distancing. There were no crowds when we arrived at the port of Miami for our cruise, partly due to the fact that ships are sailing at reduced capacity and helped along by the staggered arrival times assigned by the cruise line. I noticed that all workers at the port, whether they be porters, port authority, or cruise line employees, were properly masked the entire time we were there.

Upon arrival we were directed toward the cruise terminal entrance, but before we were allowed to enter the building someone verified that we had our CDC issued COVID vaccination cards. One important point to note…passengers are required to wear face masks from the beginning of check-in until after boarding the ship. We noticed a few people not wearing masks as we walked up to the cruise terminal to check in for our cruise, and they were not permitted to enter the terminal building until they masked up. If anyone took their mask off once in the cruise terminal other than for identification purposes, they were admonished to wear their mask and wear it properly.

Norwegian contracts out their required pier side COVID testing to CVS’s MinuteClinic, and their operation in the terminal was efficient. We passed through several checkpoints on our way to the COVID test stations to verify that we had filled out the necessary pre-test forms online, and to have our CDC COVID vaccination cards checked. For our cruise, only original CDC COVID vaccination cards were accepted.

After verifying we were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, we were directed to one of several test stations where our CDC vaccination cards were once again checked along with our passports to verify our identity. Each test station was staffed with three people: one person to verify our identity, provide test instructions and monitor us as we self-administered the nasal swab, a second person to prepare the test cards and apply the sample when we handed over our swabs, and a third person to make sure the test cards were read at the proper time and to record the results.

Once we handed over our sample and it was processed, we were directed to a waiting area until the results were available, about 15 minutes later. A unique identity code was assigned to each person tested, and we were given a card with that code and the time of our test to take with us to the waiting area.

The test result waiting area was the only time during our check-in that social distancing was not observed. The waiting area consisted of rows of portable plastic seats. At this point even though we weren’t socially distanced, the risk of being exposed to COVID was minimal. Everybody in the area was fully vaccinated and although we were all waiting for the results of COVID testing which theoretically could be positive, all wore masks, the room was a large open air high-bay warehouse space with good air flow, and our time in that space was limited to 15 minutes.

As test results came in, identity codes were displayed on a screen and announced over a loudspeaker. When your identity code was called you got a pink wristband which you wore until completing the rest of the check in. The wrist band marked you as being fully vaccinated and testing negative for COVID. Guests whose code wasn’t called within 20 minutes of being tested were directed to an area adjacent to the test waiting area for further instructions. That meant you tested positive for COVID and wouldn’t be allowed to take the cruise.

The entire process was quick. We arrived just a few minutes before our assigned arrival time for testing of 10:00AM. We passed through the initial screening quickly and by 10:12AM we were both tested and waiting for the results. Our tests came back negative and by 10:30AM we were at the security checkpoint getting our carry-on bags screened. The rest of our check in was equally uneventful and by 10:50AM we were sitting in the departure lounge waiting for boarding to begin. Boarding started at 11:14AM, and we were on the ship enjoying lunch by 11:45AM.

Onboard COVID Precautions

Norwegian has made their COVID screening strict so that once onboard, the guest cruise experience is as close to pre-COVID as possible. As soon as the ship’s security logged us aboard the ship, masks became optional. The crew was masked for the entire cruise, but once onboard we removed our masks.

With all guests and crew fully vaccinated and guests having a negative COVID test pier-side, the onboard experience was as close to a normal cruise as I would have expected. There was no requirement for masking or social distancing once onboard the ship, and with the ship sailing at half the usual passenger capacity, it wasn’t an issue most of the time. The popular bars were full, as were the elevators at times and though a few people opted to mask up, most did not. Passengers who chose to wear masks were treated the same as those who didn’t…there was no stigma either way.

Once onboard the ship there was just one more difference in our cruise from pre-COVID times. The mandatory Coast Guard safety drill was no longer a mass gathering. Instead, each guest was required to report to their assigned muster station at some point between boarding and before the ship set sail. Crew members were present at each muster station to go over the drill with guests on an individual basis. I found that to be a much more effective approach to the usual mass safety briefing and I hope the Coast Guard allows it to continue.

Port Calls

Our ship made four port calls in three different countries. Each port call was docked rather than tendered, and each country had its own COVID protocols. Based on what I read prior to cruising, I was expecting to wear masks for debarkation, but none of our stops required that. That being said, you would be wise to ensure you bring your mask when getting off the ship just in case. Guests were not required to book excursions through the cruise line and were free to explore on their own at each port call. Masking requirements were based on a combination of local requirements and the nature of the excursion with anything requiring transport requiring masks while in the vehicle, whether booked through the cruise line or independently. We booked two excursions with the cruise line but chose to explore on our own in Cozumel and had no issues or concerns at any time we were off the ship. The use of masks by locals at each of our port calls was about 50/50 or higher.

Enhanced Sanitation

I have generally been impressed with how diligent cruise ship employees are with cleaning and this cruise was no exception. I did not see any futuristic UV sterilizing robots or remote sanitizing foggers like I read about early in the pandemic…just the usual thorough sanitization, and admonitions to use hand sanitizer when entering and leaving any of the dining venues as well as the bars and lounges.

The one major surprise for me was the buffet. I fully expected buffet service to be crew served, and perhaps on ships that don’t require all guests be vaccinated that is the case. On NCL Gem with all passengers vaccinated, the buffet was self-serve though there seemed to be more crew members monitoring the buffet stations to make sure guests used the serving utensils rather than their hands.

Debarkation in Miami

The CDC and DHS requirements for our return to the U.S. were as dynamic and subject to change as were our departure requirements. Two things I expected to go through at the end of our cruise we did not…I’m not sure why, but I’m not going to complain. First, we didn’t have to go through the COVID testing the CDC requires for citizens returning to the U.S. after international travel. Second, we were able to walk off the ship without having to go through the usual immigration checkpoint or having to fill out and hand in a customs declaration form.

Our cruise was a closed loop cruise…we returned to the same port we departed from, and no passengers were permitted to begin or end their cruise at any of the port calls we made except in cases of medical emergency. While in the past such cruises were subject to the same DHS entry checks as if we arrived on an international flight, this time we were not. I hope that becomes the norm for cruising. Before you go crazy in the duty-free store and overbuy way past your legal duty-free allowance, customs agents were in the terminal building and some form of spot checking was taking place.

That’s a Wrap

Everybody’s risk tolerance is different. I can’t tell you it is safe for you to cruise…only you can decide that. What I can tell you is that for the foreseeable future I expect the cruise lines to require all adults be fully vaccinated, and to have a negative COVID test prior to or as part of checking in for each cruise. COVID safety measures imposed by the CDC and the cruise lines are changing on a nearly daily basis, and our experience with Norwegian Cruise Lines won’t be the same as someone cruising with another line. Norwegian Cruise Lines has made the business decision to limit passengers on their ships to fully vaccinated only. Other cruise lines that market to families, such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are allowing up to 5% of their guests on any cruise to be unvaccinated, as permitted by the CDC. For now, unvaccinated passengers on those lines are limited to children under 12 years old who are not eligible to get the COVID vaccine, and they are imposing additional testing requirements to further mitigate risk.

Janet and I felt comfortable with the risks we faced in taking this cruise, and with the risk mitigation measures the cruise line took to ensure our safety. Even so, we purchased an at home COVID test kit and after we returned from the cruise we tested ourselves for COVID before getting together with friends and family. After having taken the cruise, I feel even more comfortable with our decision to continue cruising. Our next cruise is just a few weeks away and I can’t wait!

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