Just as cruising starts its return, it faces not only the hurdle of sailing safely with thousands of passengers on each ship, but doing so while a fast-spreading new variant hits the United States.
You’ve no doubt seen the headlines and heard the stories about the Delta variant — a version of the virus that spreads more quickly than the strain that shut down cruising for more than a year. The Delta strain has quickly grown to become dominant in the United States.
The good news is that data suggests people with the vaccine have much better outcomes than the unvaccinated should they get sick. That includes far less instance of serious illness and hospitalization. The bad news is that even if vaccinated, there seems to be more evidence of “breakthrough” cases where someone with the shot still catches COVID.
Given that cruise lines have staked so much of their return on the widespread use of vaccines, what could the Delta variant mean for cruising, even if you have the shot?
Current Rules Are Relaxed for Vaccinated Passengers
So far several cruise lines have returned to sailing. Celebrity returned with the first cruise from the United States, departing Fort Lauderdale in late June. Royal Caribbean began sailing from Miami in early July, along with Carnival sailing from Galveston and Miami.
Now more cruise lines and ships are making their comebacks, including Alaskan cruises on several lines coming back for the first time since 2019. And plans at this point are for the number of ships to continue to increase. Carnival Corporation, for instance, plans to have 75% of its fleet capacity across all lines back sailing by the end of the year.
The health rules vary on the cruises that have returned so far. Some require vaccines, while others do not. Part of this is due to a law in Florida that says businesses can’t require proof of vaccination from customers.
So, for instance, Carnival Cruise Line trips from Texas aim for fully-vaccinated cruises where at least 95% of passengers have the shot. A small number of exemptions are allowed for unvaccinated passengers. Since most people onboard are vaccinated, masks and distancing aren’t required around the ship.
Royal Caribbean doesn’t require the shot when sailing from Florida, but does for other ports if a passenger is eligible (kids are still allowed to sail). Even so, its cruises have mask rules when indoors, as well as distancing around the ship. But there are also designated spots on its ships that are for vaccinated passengers only where mask and distancing rules are relaxed.
In port, vaccinated passengers across cruise lines are allowed free exploration, albeit often with mask and distancing requirements imposed by other countries. Unvaccinated passengers have to stick to special “bubble” excursions in most cases.
And according to CDC guidelines, testing of vaccinated passengers is optional. So far, the cruise lines that have returned have sided on not testing these guests en masse. However, any unvaccinated passengers are tested several times before and during the cruise to ensure safety.
In other words, masking, testing, and excursion rules are greatly relaxed if vaccinated. But could that change?
Virus Causing Infections in Vaccinated People
The issue is with the rapid rise of the Delta variant of COVID. While vaccinated people have a much better outcome if they get the disease, there is evidence coming out that they can still catch the virus in significant numbers.
New reports from Israel says that while the Pfizer vaccine is 91% effective against severe illness, it is only 39% effective against infection.
Closer to home, Los Angeles County reported that 20% of positive cases in June were found in vaccinated people.
And in a San Antonio nursing home, 31 residents — all fully vaccinated — tested positive for the virus recently, according to reports. The strain was not reported, but the majority of cases in the United States right now are of the Delta variant.
These breakthrough cases create some worry that even in the relative “bubble” of a vaccinated cruise, cases could occur.
Meanwhile, cruise lines have been able to sail without any major disruption due to COVID so far, but have not completely eliminated the issue, even with vaccines.
Of the 63 ships the CDC tracks that are either currently sailing or plan to sail from U.S. waters, 15 are either “orange” or “yellow” status. This means there have been possible cases on the ships in the past seven days or issues with daily reporting to the CDC.
Stiffer Protocols Already in Place in Some Places
With breakthrough cases being seen on land, could cruise lines begin to impose more restrictions on passengers? Could things like testing all passengers — including vaccinated people — be in play? We think it’s possible.
We contacted both Royal Caribbean and Carnival — two of the biggest players in cruising — asking if changes were a possibility. Neither cruise line responded.
However, we are seeing these sorts of protocols already in some places.
For example, Royal Caribbean requires all passengers two years and older (no matter vaccination status) to take a test at the terminal before boarding Harmony of the Seas in Barcelona. Anthem of the Seas, sailing from the U.K., requires vaccinated guests have a negative test within three days of sailing.
In other words, while Royal Caribbean doesn’t require a test for vaccinated passengers sailing from the United States at this time, testing rules are in place for vaccinated guests in some other countries.
Princess follows a similar policy. Their website says that all passengers are required to have a negative test at the terminal before boarding in Southampton.
Closer to home, Norwegian Cruise Line — which is requiring 100% of guests be vaccinated — plans to also require all guests to have an antigen test at the port before boarding. And Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line is also requiring vaccinated guests to take a test before boarding.
The bottom line is that it’s not unheard of for cruise lines to require a test of every passenger — no matter their vaccination status. In addition, cruise lines sailing below the fully vaccinated threshold of 95% of passengers already have to follow masking and distancing requirements in many areas on the ship.
It’s not a stretch to see these protocols applied to more cruises.
Stricter Rules Could Mean Peace of Mind
As with everything else in this pandemic, it’s impossible to say exactly what will happen. What is clear now is that cases are rising once again while there is evidence the virus can get by the vaccine with greater frequency than in the past.
In order to keep cruising safely, we wouldn’t be surprised if there are some changes in the protocols, such as testing at the terminal for all passengers — even those sailing vaccinated.
The good news? While we all want to go back to normal, being on a cruise with a high number of vaccinated passengers and having everyone tested before boarding should give you the most peace of mind in sailing safely.