The New Topless…

Going around on a cruise ship without a face mask is the new topless for cruising. Not to bury the lead, but you can now cruise without masks. You still need to get vaccinated, and boosters are highly recommended, but as of the end of February face masks are optional on all major cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters. That’s a really big deal and has come about as a result of a significant reduction in COVID risk now that the Omicron wave is behind us.

A few days ago the CDC implemented a new “voluntary” policy that all major cruise lines have already opted into, their second major “voluntary” COVID policy for cruise lines in as many months. These policies have been voluntary in name only, and they contain a good bit of burdensome and pointless bureaucracy for the cruise lines to object to. And object they did. However…they have found some good in the latest CDC policy, and that’s good news for us. Let me break it down.

Masks. All major cruise lines will be following a mask optional policy for passengers beginning the end of February. This is a big step toward a return to pre-pandemic cruising, and it is a change I know many cruisers will welcome. Masks are still required for all crew members, and passengers will still need to bring a mask as they continue to be required for commercial transportation and in the cruise terminal throughout the check-in process. There could also be some onboard activities or venues where masking is periodically required, and you should be prepared to bring your mask with you on all shore excursions. We recommend using N95/KN95 masks, or at a minimum a disposable surgical type mask, as those are more widely accepted by other countries. And even though masks will no longer be required on most cruise ships, if you are more comfortable wearing your mask you can feel free to do so. Janet and I cruised on several adults only, fully vaccinated cruises after cruising resumed in June where masks were optional. Even though the majority of cruisers left their masks in the cabin, there were still plenty of cruisers wearing masks.

Masking requirements for the kids vary by age. Masks are not required for children under the age of  two. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 won’t be vaccinated and therefore are expected to wear masks in public indoor spaces. All children participating in any of the cruise lines’ kids programs will also be required to mask up when indoors in any of the areas designated for kids since the onboard programs will be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated kids.

Vaccinations. As a practical matter, adults and kids over the age of 12 must be vaccinated in order to cruise on any major cruise ship operating in U.S. waters. That’s not because of any CDC requirement…it is because the ports cruise ships visit throughout the Caribbean require it.

The cruise lines are trying to spin the latest CDC guidance as though there is something new in it. If there is, I haven’t found it, and I have almost 40 years of experience reading government bureaucratese. The CDC allows cruise ships to operate in U.S. waters provided at least 95% of all passengers on each sailing are fully vaccinated. They give the cruise lines discretion in how to apply the allowance of unvaccinated cruisers, and cruise lines continue to limit it to children under 12 years old. The reason, as I’ve noted before, is that some of the most visited Caribbean islands don’t allow unvaccinated cruise ship passengers over the age of 12. Now that COVID vaccinations have been approved for kids down to the age of five years old, if any of the Caribbean Islands drop their vaccination requirement below the age of 12 you can expect cruise lines to adjust their vaccination policies accordingly.

Boosters. For the time being the definition of being fully vaccinated does not include getting a third or booster shot. As of now, the CDC policy states that boosters are highly recommended, and that’s how the cruise lines are selling it to passengers…boosters are highly recommended but not required. Cruise lines have already stated their intent to comply if the CDC changes the definition of full vaccination to include boosters, but so far boosters are only required by some of the smaller luxury cruise lines that cater to an older age demographic.

If you have been holding off booking your next cruise for a return to normal, the time to book is now. This is about as normal as it is going to get in this era of endemic COVID-19, and for me and many others who love to cruise, it is close enough. Expect cruise bookings to explode with this latest news from the cruise lines. It’s not too late to get in on some bargains but don’t wait. Give us a call now!

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