“Woman describes ‘cruise from hell’ after operator cancels sailings for ‘COVID-19 related circumstances’ and holds passengers at sea for days” – Business Insider
“’Not the cruise I signed up for’: 30-fold increase in COVID cases upends industry” – The Guardian
“CDC warns travelers to avoid cruise ships, ‘regardless of vaccination status,’ amid COVID outbreaks” – ABC7News
Those aren’t headlines from March of 2020, back at the beginning of the pandemic. They’re headlines from earlier this month…January of 2022. Wow. Cruise ships have only been back to sailing since June. They aren’t even yet back to sailing at full capacity and already this. How can the CDC let cruise ships continue to sail with headlines like that? And who would want to sail on one? Well, to answer the last question, me! And plenty of others like me who love to cruise and have the ability to apply critical thinking skills to those headlines. Because when you view them critically, you find the headlines are just click bait.
The CDC is finally getting a clue as well. Earlier this month they allowed the mandatory regulations and restrictions they levied on the cruise industry to expire. The regulations that were in place before the CDC rules expired didn’t actually go away…the CDC just made compliance voluntary. To their credit, the major cruise lines quickly opted in, so effectively nothing has changed there.
Can you contract COVID-19 on a cruise ship? Yes, and the cruise industry has always accepted that as a risk they needed to manage. When headlines were splashing across the internet about cruise ship cases of COVID with the coming of the Omicron variant, you didn’t hear anything about how the national positivity rate was skyrocketing at a much greater rate. No state was immune, and the reality is a cruise ship was statistically one of the safest places you could be.
Cruise lines require three things of crew and guests to comply with the CDC’s regulations and to reduce their risk of contracting COVID while on the cruise ship: vaccines, testing, and masks. All crew members are required to be fully vaccinated, and a requirement for boosters is being phased in. When onboard, all crew members are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces. And lastly, all crew members must be tested weekly. If a crew member tests positive, and most that do have been asymptomatic to date, their positive test gets reported to the CDC and the crew member is put in isolation. Increasingly cruise lines are transferring COVID positive crew members off ships until they test negative, and they aren’t permitted back onboard until they test negative.
The requirements for guests are similar. All guests eligible to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated, and some lines are beginning to phase in a requirement for booster shots. Four cruise lines, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, and Royal Caribbean, permit a small number of unvaccinated children under age 12 to cruise with their families, with the specific details varying by cruise line. The total number of unvaccinated children allowed on any given cruise is limited by the CDC to under 5% of the total number of guests on that cruise. So if you have kids and you want to cruise, you can. If you prefer cruising on a ship with only vaccinated people aboard, you can. We’ll help you sort through your options based on your individual risk tolerance and cruising preferences.
Cruise lines have adjusted their testing requirements for guests since the Omicron variant appeared. Testing, either antigen or PCR, is still required…the changes involve minor adjustments to when you have to get tested before cruising. Masking requirements have also been dynamic. When you cruise you should be prepared, and willing, to wear an approved mask anytime you are indoors in public spaces except when you are actively eating and drinking. If the local conditions on your cruise ship are more relaxed you can still opt to wear your mask while in public spaces if you feel more comfortable doing so…plenty of people do and at all times all crew members are masked indoors.
If you test positive for COVID while on a cruise the line will take care of you, whether you require medical attention or are asymptomatic. There has been some pretty lousy reporting on this topic in the media lately similar to the headlines I opened this post with. Let me just say a guest testing positive on a cruise continues to be the rare exception, but when it happens the cruise lines bend over backwards to accommodate guests while maintaining CDC required isolation and quarantine protocols.
So how effective have the cruise lines’ measures been at protecting passengers from COVID? In a post from November, I mentioned Royal Caribbean had reported just 150 people tested positive for COVID on their cruise ships since cruising resumed worldwide, with only a handful being symptomatic and no deaths. That was out of over 600,000 guests that cruised during the timeframe. That’s pretty impressive. Well I think it is anyway. But what about now with the additional risks posed by the Omicron variant?
Breakthrough COVID cases on cruise ships have increased since the beginning of the Omicron wave, but they remain disproportionately lower as compared with land-based locations. From the end of December through the first two weeks in January, at a time when the Omicron variant drove positivity rates around the country up to 25-30%, cruise ships were reporting positivity rates under 1%. The worse cases were a few ships that reported positivity rates between 1-3%. Most of the COVID positive cases involved crew members, and most were asymptomatic. In terms of specific numbers, Royal Caribbean has been the most transparent at sharing their COVID stats with the public. A representative recently reported 1,745 guests tested positive for COVID since they resumed sailing operations in June. That’s out of over 1.1 million guests who sailed during that time, which is a positivity rate of 0.162%.
Travel comes with some measure of risk as do all things in life worth pursuing. COVID presents additional risk, and as travel agents we appreciate that not all of our clients are ready to accept those risks. My hope with this post is to counter some of the alarmist headlines I’ve seen lately with facts. So here are some facts. Since cruising resumed in June, no cruise sailing with passengers has been cancelled because of COVID. Absolutely no cruise passengers have been “stuck at sea” because of COVID. What about the woman who described her experience as being the “cruise from hell?” She was unhappy because she couldn’t spend the last two days of her cruise sunbathing by the pool. The reason for that? She cruised out of New York City…in January! Passengers on that same cruise described it as “an absolutely amazing cruise.” There’s always someone on every cruise that probably should have thought twice before booking.