For cruising, June 26, 2021 marks a red-letter date. On that day one year ago, the first ship — Celebrity Edge — departed Port Everglades, marking the first cruise ship to sail from the United States since cruises were halted in March 2020.
And what started with a single ship has since grown into nearly 100 major ships sailing from 20 cruise lines. Today, millions of passengers are once again taking cruises from the U.S., visiting everywhere from Alaska to Aruba and points in between.
During that time, the onboard experience has undergone a dramatic shift as the nation’s attitude toward the pandemic has relaxed, despite still seeing cases. In fact, The latest figures from the CDC show that every cruise ship the CDC tracks (94 vessels in total) have likely cases on board.
Despite that, there are some initial hints that rules around testing before sailing — one of the hallmarks of the return to cruise protocols of the past year — could be relaxed.
So what exactly is going on? Here’s the latest you need to know.
100% of Ships Tracked by CDC Show Possible Cases
As part of the return to sailing one year ago, cruise lines did so under CDC oversight. These protocols laid out a myriad of rules that cruise lines were to follow, surrounding everything from testing to isolating cases found on the ship.
Part of this program included daily reporting of cases on the ship to the CDC. Then, the health agency assigned a color status based onboard case counts. While the CDC’s program has now turned to voluntary, all the major cruise ships sailing in the United States are opted in.
To be sure, this program does not provide individual case counts to the public. So we have no idea how many cases ships are actually dealing with. But the color status does give some hint as to what ships are seeing.
All told, there are four different status levels, as shown by the CDC:
At Cruzely, we’ve tracked the color status of ships for months, going back to August 2021. And right now, cruise lines are seeing the lowest number of green status ships since we started tracking.
In fact, while the number of green ships has hovered in the single digits, as of the latest report there was not a single ship with that status. As recently as mid-March, nearly 60 ships were green.
Meanwhile, nearly 90 ships have orange status, meaning more than 0.3% of those onboard ships sailing with passengers (three people per thousand) have cases. Note: Ships can also receive orange status for not submitting reports on time.
All told, of the 94 ships currently tracked by the CDC, all are are either yellow or orange, indicating possible cases right now:
Despite Cases, Restrictions Are Easing
Despite this, the trend on cruise ships has been toward loosening restrictions. For instance, mask rules on ships, which were put in place during the Omicron surge, were eased months ago. Rules requiring masks in terminals were also recently relaxed following a legal ruling.
And smaller changes — such as reducing the number of passengers needing to be vaccinated from 95% to 90% for the cruise to be considered “highly vaccinated” — were also made.
In fact, if you take a cruise from the United States today, then the onboard experience is largely the same as what it was before the pandemic. The biggest difference is that cruise lines require you to be vaccinated in most cases and take a Covid test in advance of heading to the pier.
Signs of Relaxing Testing Rules?
But could that testing requirement be dropped? There are some hints that it could happen, although it is anything but a sure thing.
First, the CDC recently dropped a requirement to test before flying into the United States. Previously, air passengers — including U.S. citizens — were required to have a negative test before flying to the U.S. That seems to be a definite sign that the health agency is moving toward fewer restrictions on travel.
At the same time, the agency also recently removed its Travel Health Notice for cruising. While in practice that means little changes for passengers on the ship, it is a sign that the agency’s restrictions on cruising may be softening.
As well, some cruise lines sailing outside of the United States are dropping their pre-boarding testing requirements. According to CruiseIndustryNews.com, two lines have dropped some pre-boarding test rules.
P&O Cruises — part of the Carnival Corporation — has said that it will not require testing prior to boarding for some upcoming summer cruises aboard one of its ships. It’s far from a full rescinding of the testing rules, but it is a start.
Viking Cruises also said it was dropping pre-boarding test rules for passengers, except on Viking Orion and Viking Octantis, which sail in the United States. According to its website, “Viking highly recommends, but does not require, a pre-departure COVID-19 test—unless one is required by the destination.”
That decision came due to the U.S. rule dropping the testing requirement for flights, according to Viking Chairman Torstein Hagan.
No Move to Drop U.S. Test Requirements Just Yet
To be sure, there is no definite sign that testing before taking a cruise from the United States is set to end. But despite the high number of ships seeing cases, there are some hints that the attitude is toward continuing to loosen restrictions in cruising compared to tightening them.
As well, keep in mind that the cruise industry is one of the only portions of travel currently seeing things like testing and vaccine requirements.
There seems to be little doubt that Covid is still having an impact in cruising and around the world. But as we learn to live with the virus, it seems clear that the trend is toward fewer restrictions and protocols. It might be that pre-boarding testing is the next to ease.