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Cruises Continue to Sail Despite New CDC Warning and Outbreaks

By Fran Golden

Jan 5, 2022

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Royal Caribbean Group reported that fewer than 1 percent of passengers tested positive for COVID-19 in 2021.

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Royal Caribbean Group reported that fewer than 1 percent of passengers tested positive for COVID-19 in 2021.

After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new advice that even fully vaccinated Americans should avoid cruising, much of the cruise industry said sailings will go on with health protocols in place.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ended 2021 with a harsh warning for those considering taking a cruise vacation. On December 30, the agency updated its COVID-19 health guidance for cruise ships to Level 4, meaning cruising presents a “very high risk” for contracting the virus.

“Avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status,” the CDC said in a statement. “Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.”

The move put the cruise industry very much on the defensive.

The Omicron setback

Like much of travel, cruising in the United States came to an abrupt halt in March 2020. U.S. sailings finally started back up in June 2021, and since then cruise companies have been following CDC guidance on vaccine requirements, precruise testing, masking onboard, and other health and safety measures.

Despite all the protocols, outbreaks on ships have increased in recent weeks with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Last month, some Caribbean and Mexico ports began turning away ships with positive cases, for fear of Omicron spread. (The Mexican government later said that it will allow cruise ships carrying people infected with the coronavirus to dock, as long as the ships follow testing and quarantine protocols.) In late December, an MSC Cruises ship was rejected from the company’s own recently opened private Bahamas Island, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, after several guests and crew tested positive for COVID-19.

The current surge prompted Norwegian Cruise Line on January 5 to announce that it is canceling cruises on seven vessels for departure dates that extend as far out as April. 

The CDC’s move to up its warning level comes as the agency is investigating more than 90 outbreaks on ships embarking from the United States as of press time. Most guests and crew who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been vaccinated and were asymptomatic, and the actual number of cases has been relatively small compared to the total number of passengers—a few dozen people on a ship carrying thousands, for instance. 

In response to the outbreaks, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal called for the agency to again shut down the cruise industry, which the CDC did not do.

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The CDC instead warned travelers that COVID-19 spreads easily in “close quarters on board ships” and that chances of getting COVID-19 on a cruise ship are very high, “even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose.” The agency recommends boosters for anyone planning to cruise.

If you do choose to cruise, the CDC suggests you get tested both before your trip (as required by cruise lines) and three to five days after the cruise is over, even if you are not experiencing any symptoms and regardless of vaccination status. If you are unvaccinated—such as younger kids who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines—you should quarantine for five days after the cruise, the agency says.

The CDC also advises all cruise passengers to wear a mask in shared spaces, a policy most cruise lines already have in place except when guests are eating or drinking.

Cruise industry response

Early on December 30, Royal Caribbean Group (parent company of cruise lines that include Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Silversea) issued a press release aimed at investors touting that of 1.1. million guests the company had carried since restarting operations in June, only 1,745 guests had tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild or no symptoms, 44 of which required hospitalization, according to the cruise company.

“Cruising remains one of the few places one can vacation knowing that almost everyone you meet is fully vaccinated,” the company stated. “We intend to maintain our goal of delivering the safest vacation on land or sea and will constantly adjust our procedures to accomplish this even in the face of Omicron’s amazing transmissibility,” Richard Fain, the company’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

Later that day, following the new CDC advice, the industry was collectively crying “no fair.”

“The cruise industry is the only industry in the U.S. travel and tourism sector that is requiring both vaccinations and testing for crew and guests,” the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said in a statement. The association called the raised CDC warning “particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.”

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CLIA consists of more than 50 domestic and international cruise lines, including some of the largest and most well-known lines, such as Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, and Windstar Cruises.

“Incidents of COVID on our ships is virtually below any U.S. locale,” John Heald, Carnival Cruise Line’s senior cruise director, told followers on Facebook Live. “We are not stopping cruising.”

On January 5, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) also stepped in to back the cruise industry. 

“If the average cruise ship were a U.S. state, it would be the safest in the country—by far,” ASTA president and CEO Zane Kerby, said in a statement.

Kerby added that cruise lines have implemented “extraordinarily stringent anti-COVID measures.”

An infectious disease expert offers cruise advice

When it comes to what public health experts advise, given the swift spread of Omicron, travelers should consider delaying their cruise vacations, according to Dr. Thomas Russo, a leading infectious disease specialist and chief of infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Passengers should assume Omicron will be on their ship, especially if it’s a large ship with thousands onboard, he says, adding, “The problem is the virus has evolved now to be so darn infectious and people that are infected shed such a large number of particles that once the fox gets into the henhouse, it’s really hard to keep it under control.”

Precruise tests, vaccines, and even boosters are imperfect, Russo adds. The immunocompromised, those with underlying health concerns, and seniors, especially if they have not been boosted, should see the CDC warning as a red flag, he notes: “Right now, for me, it’s a hard pass.”

Russo is personally looking forward to a cruise he has booked for summer 2022. “I think patience is the order of the day,” he says. “It’s best to maybe take a pass on a cruise at this point so you have many cruises in your future.”

If you decide to cancel your cruise

Policies vary by cruise line, but most cruise companies have been offering vacation “guarantees” that give guests the option of canceling due to COVID-19 concerns. You aren’t likely to get a full refund—unless you purchased a travel insurance policy that covers the cancellation—but you are likely to be able to get the amount you paid for your cruise in the form of a future cruise credit, to use at a later date.

>> Next: How to Plan and Book the Perfect Yacht Charter

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