Cruise lines have regularly mentioned that as cases of Covid fall on land, they are seeing falling cases on their ships as well. In fact, roughly a month ago Jason Liberty, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, stated that he thought “it appears the worst is behind us.”
CDC data now shows that definitely seems to be the case as fewer and fewer ships are seeing any virus cases onboard. And those that are seeing cases are largely seeing them in small, isolated numbers.
Cruise Color Status Shows Strong Improvement
With the CDC’s voluntary “COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships,” (of which nearly every single cruise ship is opted in) those sailing in U.S. waters submit daily reports regarding possible cases on the vessel.
While there are some caveats, if there are no cases, then a ship earns a ‘green’ designation. Cases of fewer than 0.3% of those on the ship (3 cases per 1,000 people) see a ‘yellow’ marker. And those with more than 0.3% see ‘orange’ status. If things get really bad, then the CDC does have a ‘red’ designation, although it has not been used before. (See our guide to cruise ship color status here.)
During the peak of the Omicron wave, the number of ‘green’ cruise ships plummeted as cases rose on land and at sea. At the worst mark, registered in mid-January 2022, just nine ships out of 107 tracked had ‘green’ status.
But what a difference a few weeks can make.
As cases on Omicron have tumbled in the United States, cruise lines are seeing a similar path. From a low of just nine ships about six weeks ago, the number of ‘green’ ships is now 52 (out of 115 reporting data). And beyond that, there are another 41 ships that have ‘yellow’ designation, indicating fewer than 0.3% of the people on the ship have positive cases.
In other words, the vast majority of ships — despite having thousands of people onboard — are seeing no or very few cases.
You can see the sharp rise in ‘green’ ships in the chart below:
A Positive Outlook Into the Spring
With the sharp improvement in cases both on land and at sea, cruise lines have quickly adjusted their protocols on ships.
Perhaps most noticeably, masking rules have dramatically eased across cruises. Whereas last month masks in indoor areas were the rule, now most lines allow you to sail without requiring one, all with the CDC’s blessing.
And while vaccinations and testing are still required among almost all passengers (and will be for some time), there is even some initial thought being given to when they may no longer be needed.
During a recent Norwegian Cruise Line call with former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb (Gottlieb serves on an health advisory panel to the company), he was asked when vaccines may no longer be needed to sail.
“The short answer to the question is, I think this is kind of a springtime (2023) thing from a CDC policy standpoint,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “They are going to want to make a decision around this after we get through another fall and winter with Covid and see if we are truly in an endemic phase with this.”
To be clear, no one is pushing to remove the vaccination rules yet, but there does seem to be an impression that we could be past the worst of the health crisis, with clearer skies ahead.
“To sum up, I think that we’re likely to have a quiet spring and summer. It’s likely to be pretty low prevalence. I think people are going to be looking to get back to doing things they enjoy and feel relatively comfortable doing it,” Dr. Gottlieb added.
Full ‘Green’ Will Take Longer, But Low Positivity Rates
Even with the improvement, expect it to take a little longer for ships to return to the highest levels of ‘green’ status. For instance, in mid-December before Omicron took hold, 81 of 107 ships (~76%) had green status, indicating no cases.
Given the amount of testing and monitoring conducted on cruise ships, they are arguably the most scrutinized form of travel on the planet. For example, if staying at a Las Vegas resort, guests aren’t required to have a Covid test to enter like they are on cruise ships. Hotels and resorts also don’t have daily tracking by the CDC.
That means more cases will be found on cruises, and even a single case is enough to turn a ship from ‘green’ to ‘yellow.’
Even so, cruise lines are seeing promising numbers regarding cases onboard, along with what the CDC data shows. Royal Caribbean’s CEO Jason Liberty said his cruise line is seeing cases back to pre-Omicron levels. And of 1.3 million passengers they’ve seen since the restart, about 2,500 — or 0.19% — have tested positive.
“This positivity rate is still a small fraction of what it is in society at large and nearly all cases onboard were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms,” Liberty said.
In other words, between what cruise lines are reporting and the CDC data, it appears that the worst of the health crisis may now in the rearview mirror, a tumultuous two years after it started.