Since cruises returned, they’ve faced not just a challenge in ramping up ships that were laid up for roughly a year-and-a-half. They’ve also faced a pandemic that continues to evolve and still shows no signs of easing.
When ships returned in mid-summer, cases were relatively low as vaccines rolled out. It largely looked like the crisis was in the past. And then came the Delta variant, leading to sharp spike in cases.
The good news is that cruise protocols seemingly held up against the variant. The CDC reports that between late June (when cruises returned) and late October (when the data was published), there were roughly 1,350 cases reported on ships. That may sound like a lot, but it comes out to about 12 per day, across dozens of ships and hundreds of thousands of passengers and crew members.
Now a new challenge arrives in the Omicron variant. It’s still too early for much data on the variant, but it seems clear that it spreads quickly — even among those who are vaccinated. Of course, that’s a major challenge for cruise ships.
In response, a number of lines have implemented new masking rules on their ships for the time being. In short, if you sail any cruise in the coming weeks, it’s smart to be prepared to wear a mask while indoors on the ship, even if vaccinated.
Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival announced that through January 31, 2022 all guests over two years old are “requested” to wear a mask at all times inside the ship. The only exceptions are when eating/drinking and inside staterooms.
In addition, the cruise line made a couple of other changes. First, there is no smoking in the casino at all times. Previously smoking was only allowed if the passenger was seated and playing a game.
As well, the cruise line has a new notice regarding booster shots. While they aren’t yet required yet, there is more emphasis on having a booster before cruising:
“The CDC has strongly recommended that all persons over 16 years obtain a COVID-19 booster vaccination when eligible. We strongly encourage all guests who are eligible to get their booster vaccine at least seven days before boarding.”
Royal Caribbean is also implementing new mask rules on its ships. For all sailings departing before January 5, 2022, the rules now state that passengers two years and older must mask up “while indoors in public areas of the ship, unless seated and actively eating or drinking.” This is in addition to masks “while visiting public ports of call, where local regulations may require them.”
Previously, Royal Caribbean allowed guests to go without masks in areas reserved for vaccinated passengers only. For now at least, it looks like those rules have changed.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian has been one of the most stringent cruise lines when it comes to vaccinations. While Carnival and Royal Caribbean allow some unvaccinated passengers on the ship with more testing requirements, NCL has a mandatory vaccine rule. Passengers must have the shot in order to sail.
Because of that 100% vaccinated threshold, NCL had been one of the few lines to not require masks anywhere on the ship. But with Omicron seemingly able to evade vaccination and spread more easily, that’s changed.
Now the cruise line has the following order in place:
“For sailings with embarkation dates through and including December 19, 2021, all guests and crew are required to wear masks onboard while indoors, except when actively eating or drinking, or seated at a table in a dining setting, or when in their stateroom.”
In addition, the cruise line’s “Sail Safe” page used to state there was no social distancing required. That reference has been removed, and replaced with mention of lower guest capacity to “allow for physical distancing while onboard.” (Note that it doesn’t say distancing is now required, just that there is space for it.)
Unlikely to Be the Last Changes to Rules
Given the rise of Omicron and that cruise lines have said their protocols will adjust to the virus, it’s not a surprise that these moves are being made. In fact, we’d expect similar requirements from all cruise lines for the time being.
It’s also possible that assuming a spike in cases — which is predicted by many health experts — more protocols will be put in place, including things like requiring booster shots and more frequent testing. If you plan to sail in the weeks and months ahead, be ready for potential changes.