In the past few weeks, the news surrounding COVID and the cruise industry has come as a whirlwind. At the start of December, things looked relatively stable. Ships were returning and cases — while definitely found on cruise ships — didn’t go very far thanks to vaccines and testing.
What a difference a month can make. With the rise of the Omicron variant on land, cruise ships are being impacted as well despite having some of the most rigid protocols in travel.
But there is a lot happening that you may not realize surrounding this new variant and cruises. Here’s what to know…
Cases Have Risen at Sea (5,000+ in Two Weeks)
Let’s start with the absolute basics, which is that cases are rising at sea. Sure, it’s made headlines, but you might not know some of the data behind that rise.
This starts with the CDC’s daily color status report. Each day more than 100 ships sailing in the U.S. provide the CDC with data regarding potential or confirmed cases on the ship. The color status report assigns a color to each ship, based on daily health reports. Ships can be green, orange, yellow, or red.
In mid-December, there was a low point of about 24% of ships seeing possible cases — which can be as little as one case. By the end of the month, that figure spiked to 85%. As of today, 94 of the 110 ships tracked in the CDC’s report are “non-green,” indicating possible cases.
And from December 15 through the 29th, the agency said there were 5,013 coronavirus cases on ships, according to The Washington Post. That’s about 330 cases per day.
Before Omicron, Cruises Did a Great Job Keeping Cases Low
A big part of the return to sailing has been the implementation of protocols to keep cases off ships in the first place, and then to limit spread if cases do make it onboard. The cornerstones of these policies are requiring vaccines, negative tests before boarding, and then contact tracing on the ship.
Even though cruises returned in late June — right as the Delta wave began to hit — cases were kept relatively low.
According to data released by the CDC, between June 26 (when cruises first started back) and October 21, there were 1,359 cases found on ships under the agency’s watch. That might sound like a lot, but comes out to roughly 12 per day across hundreds of thousands of passengers and crew that have sailed.
Cases Are Still Lower Than on Land, According to One Line
The public doesn’t get regular data on case counts. The CDC doesn’t release anything regularly, nor do the cruise lines. Instead, numbers are released here and there when an outbreak makes headlines or the CDC or cruise lines provide something.
Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley remarked recently in a Facebook post that his cruise line was seeing positivity rates much lower than the states from which the ships sailed.
Furthermore, Royal Caribbean Group released some stats regarding cases on its ships. According to the company, it has carried 1.1 million guests since cruising restarted, with 1,745 people testing positive. That’s a positivity rate of 0.2%.
Of course, that comes with all sorts of caveats. For one, it’s not clear if crew are included in that count. Second, since not everyone is tested while on the ship, there might be more cases that went undetected. We also don’t know how many of those cases popped up since Omicron came into the picture.
Even so, given the sheer number of passengers, that is a low number of positive tests.
CDC Put a Travel Warning on Cruises
The CDC has provided oversight for cruises since the pandemic began. While cruises paused voluntarily, the CDC kept them paused for more than a year and put in the rules and regulations that must be followed to return.
That’s why it was big news recently when the agency moved its advisory for cruising to Level 4 — its highest level possible. With this move came a warning that the public should avoid cruise travel, even if vaccinated.
The CDC also said that if you are still planning to sail, you should be vaccinated and have a booster if eligible.
Cruises Are Still on For Now
When the CDC, which gives oversight to the cruise industry as it returns, says that people should avoid cruise travel even if vaccinated, that’s a major red flag.
It begs the question of if cruising will be paused again, similar to what we say back in March 2020. Adding pressure, one U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal has called for cruises to pause sailings, referring to them as “petri dishes.”
At this point, we just don’t know for sure what will happen. Our opinion leans toward no pause, but we certainly wouldn’t take the possibility off the table. If there was a pause, however, it’s unlikely it would be for very long. Cruises have shown the ability to keep cases in check, while in places like South Africa, the Omicron variant spikes quickly before cases begin falling.
We just have to hope that the same pattern plays out around the rest of the world.
Some Ports Are Denying Calls
While pausing the entire industry would be a major step, that doesn’t mean zero disruption. With cases on ships, some ports of call are denying the ability for them to dock.
Before a ship is given approval to dock, they submit details surrounding the health status of those onboard. A few ports have not allowed ships with a higher number of cases to come in and let passengers off. Others have said that cruise passengers must take a COVID test before heading into port, which turns into a logistical nightmare.
In other words, if you are planning to sail in the next several weeks, don’t be surprised if your itinerary sees some adjustments based on the ever-changing conditions on the ship and requirements in the port of call.
Future Oversight May Be Voluntary
Right now the only consistent way we have to know about possible cases on ships is with the CDC’s color status report. But that could be coming to an end.
Starting January 15, the CDC’s oversight program is set to expire and become voluntary. It’s not entirely clear what that will look like or if it even happens. The CDC’s orders could be extended as they have before, especially given the rise of the Omicron variant.
But if the program moves to voluntary, it’s not clear if the daily color status updates will continue. To be sure, we’d expect cruise lines to continue to enforce protocols like vaccines and testing. In fact, the CDC’s program is already voluntary for ships sailing from Florida, but cruise lines continue to follow the procedures and be tracked.
Expect More Protocols if Cases Stay High
One last thing to know is that at this point, you should expect more protocols in cruising. Already things like mask requirements when indoors have been put into place. Norwegian, which had planned to move from testing at the terminal to requiring passengers to test on their own before arriving, has extended testing at the pier.
Don’t be surprised if more protocols are put in place. So what could that mean? A few options the cruise lines have are to require booster shots of anyone who is six months past their original shots. Another could be universal testing at the pier, and maybe even requiring kids 5-11 sail vaccinated.
To be sure, these measures haven’t been put in place just yet, and they may never be. But in the battle to keep pace with the virus, additional protocols may be needed.
So what’s the bottom line with all of this? Like on land, the new variant is causing issues at sea. More ships are being impacted, but cases may actually be lower than what’s seen on land. At the same time, so far the cases being found seem to be more mild.
If you have a cruise coming up soon, don’t be surprised if there are changes to the itinerary or to the protocols. Lastly, this entire situation is moving quickly. And with that is the hope that things will also calm down more quickly than in previous waves.