Masks at the Cruise Pool? New CDC Order Seems to Say ‘Yes’

Cruises aren’t sailing from the United States, but if a new order from the CDC is still in place whenever they do sail, it could mean a big change to what many people expected.


The new order requires masks to be worn on transportation methods like planes, trains, and ships. But it doesn’t spell out exceptions for areas like pools on cruise ships that are outside and where it is possible to distance.

At this point, everyone knows that the cruise experience will be very different than before the pandemic. We’re all anticipating things like social distancing, better ventilation, more sanitation, and of course, wearing masks.

In fact, the joint Healthy Sail Panel between Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean recommended as much in their 74 suggestions on how to improve the safety of sailing:

“Recommendation 16: To prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, cruise operators should require guests and crew to wear cloth face coverings/face masks in accordance with CDC recommendations.”

In an explanation of that order, the panel went on to give guidelines on when and where masks should be worn.

Specifically, they said passengers should wear masks in any indoor setting, except for cabins and restaurants/bars (which should have distancing in place). They went on to say that masks not be required outdoors, as long as distancing is possible.

The CDC might have other thoughts in mind according to a new order.

CDC Order Applies to Ships

Starting on February 1, a new order went into place requiring masks on any sort of “conveyance” that is transporting people into or within the United States.

You likely have seen the headlines discussing the new rule, where it’s been mentioned primarily in relation to airlines. Reading through the order, however, we see that it also applies to ships. 

According to the rule, “operators transporting persons into and within the United States must require all persons onboard to wear masks for the duration of travel.”

Since most cruises depart the United States and then return to the same port, it seems that this order would apply. If the intent is to reduce the spread of COVID from people coming into the country, then it makes sense that cruise ships carrying passengers who will disembark in the United States would fall under this rule.

The CDC also says the order “applies to all conveyances leaving the United States until they arrive at a foreign destination,” implying sailings to other countries definitely fall under the rule.

Exceptions Are Limited; Masks for the “Duration of Travel”

While it is widely expected that mask-wearing will be part of cruising when sailing does return, what’s notable is that this order doesn’t spell out exceptions for cruise ships, and that causes some big questions.

That’s because traveling by cruise ship is much different than by other means. In most cases the time on other transportation is relatively short and often you don’t eat or sleep like you would on a cruise. There are also more public areas on a cruise ship and greater ability to spread out.

Put simply, planes and trains are designed to simply transport passengers as quickly as possible. Cruise ships are a resort destination instead of just a means of transportation.

Still, the rules seem to apply across the board. While the Healthy Sail Panel suggested masks weren’t needed in cabins or outdoors when distancing is in place (such as by the pool), the CDC order simply says that masks should be worn “for the duration of travel.”

The only exceptions when masks aren’t required include the following that would apply to cruise passengers:

  • While eating, drinking, or taking medication
  • While communicating with hearing impaired
  • If unconscious or incapacitated
  • When necessarily to remove the mask to verify identity
  • Children under two
  • Persons with a disability who can’t wear a mask

Cruises Aren’t Sailing Yet, But Will Order Still Be In Place?

Of course, all this is a moot point at the moment as cruises are not sailing. The major cruise lines have suspended trips until at least May, and the CDC has implemented a new framework for their return.

It’s possible that by that time the outlook for the pandemic will look very different. Even so, when cruises sail again, we simply don’t know if this order will still be in place or adjusted.

If it is still in force, there will hopefully be common-sense exceptions that apply to cruising. It’s hard to imagine that passengers would be forced to wear masks even when in their cabin or if they are sunbathing outdoors, distanced from others.

Due to the broad nature of this CDC order to all types of travel, however, right now it implies that masks are required all the time, except for a few small exceptions.

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