Amid a Delta variant–fueled COVID surge in the United States, which is affecting even the vaccinated, several cruise lines in the past few weeks have tightened their public health measures to at least temporarily require that all passengers, no matter their vaccination status, arrive at the pier with a negative COVID-19 PCR test in hand.
Some lines have also added mask requirements for all passengers, which is the latest update to their health and safety protocols in a constantly changing environment as cruise lines try to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in real time.
Consequently, passengers and travel advisors have been tasked with keeping track of fast and furious changes to make sure no one gets turned away at the dock—as reportedly happened recently in Seattle to several unvaccinated passengers who somehow did not get the message that Royal Caribbean only allows vaccinated adults onboard its Alaska sailings (there are exemptions for children).
With a cruise scheduled on the 2,900-passenger Celebrity Edge out of Miami this month, Shelley Leebow of Florida says she has been barraged with updates from Celebrity Cruises. She is vaccinated and said that when she learned only a few weeks before her sailing of the added requirement of a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding, despite the inconvenience, she thought it was a good idea. “I’d rather be safe,” she says.
She hunkered down, not wanting to take any chances of getting sick right before her vacation. “I have been very careful, even skipping the gym,” Leebow says. “I really want to go because we’ve been stuck home for a year and a half.”
Celebrity Cruises’ sister line Royal Caribbean International (both are owned by Royal Caribbean Group) kicked off the latest round of rule changes on July 29 when it rather suddenly updated its pandemic-related policies to require a PCR test effective immediately, a move that left some vaccinated cruisers scrambling to get last-minute tests that they paid for at their own expense and also resulted in some cancellations. Unvaccinated passengers were already required to be tested.
The announcement came right after six passengers, four of them vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 on a Bahamas sailing from Miami on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. The incident of unrelated vaccinated guests testing positive sent shivers up the spine of cruise executives; many have only recently started to see sailings recommence after more than a year of almost the entire cruise industry having gone dark due to the pandemic.
Other cruise lines that recently began requiring precruise PCR tests include Carnival Corporation’s Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Seabourn. Norwegian Cruise Line had previously decided to require precruise tests and is the only major line now sailing with 100 percent of its guests and crew vaccinated on all itineraries, through October 31. Most lines sail with the vast majority—95 percent—of guests vaccinated based on public health protocols established in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition to precruise testing, Carnival added masking requirements for all guests in certain indoor spaces, such as the casino and shops, elevator landings, and other places where crowds gather. Princess Cruises and Holland America Line have indoor mask requirements in place as well.
Not all lines have pivoted to mask requirements for all passengers. Norwegian, with all-vaccinated passengers, is not requiring masks and neither is sister luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean are only requiring masks for unvaccinated passengers (who are also limited in where they can go on the ships). Luxury line Crystal Cruises is recommending but not requiring masks and is not requiring precruise PCR testing of vaccinated guests (although there is a precruise test requirement for the unvaccinated).
Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said the added testing and mask rules, in effect through October, are about protecting guests and crew onboard “and to continue to provide confidence to our homeports and destinations that we are doing our part to support their efforts to protect public health and safety.” She added, “We expect these requirements will be temporary and appreciate the cooperation of our guests.”
Caribbean islands have been rethinking their own cruise-related plans in the era of Delta. The U.S. Virgin Islands, for instance, this month sent cruise lines scrambling when authorities there said they would not welcome ships unless all guests ages 12 and up are vaccinated.
While there have been complaints about the new testing and mask rules on the cruise lines’ social media posts and on other online passenger forums, most cruisers are taking the changes in stride.
In a recent survey of about 3,000 readers, the cruise review and news website Cruise Critic found that 59.3 percent of cruisers are fine with both mask and testing requirements. Less than 12 percent said they would not cruise with masks and testing in place. And 60.2 percent of cruisers said they feel the cruise lines’ safety protocols make cruise travel safer than other forms of travel.
In reality, more changes may be forthcoming as cruise lines continue to adjust to the ongoing pandemic. Cruise passengers returning to sea in the coming weeks and months should be sure to check for the latest health and safety requirements—and be flexible.