Laura Tipka, a vaccinated retiree from Boca Raton, was relieved to board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship Monday in PortMiami without having to take a coronavirus test for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Royal Caribbean and other major cruise lines are taking steps to soon allow passengers to board most voyages without COVID-19 vaccines and to relax virus testing rules.
Tipka, an avid cruiser who sails almost every month, said she let her unvaccinated neighbor know she was going to be able to cruise without proof of vaccination.
“I think it’s great that cruise lines are opening up and getting back to normal,” she said before boarding Freedom of the Seas for a four-night trip to the Bahamas.
From early September, the world’s three largest cruise lines – Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line – will allow passengers on board who have not been vaccinated, with some exceptions for longer cruises and follow local guidelines. at some stops. The three Miami-based cruise lines continue to require unvaccinated people to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding, but are removing the requirement for those vaccinated against the pandemic disease.
For US cruise lines, these changes represent the largest rollback in public health requirements since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed them to resume cruising in US waters in July 2021, after cruise lines were abruptly docked. for over a year due to the pandemic.
After being the source of numerous COVID-19 outbreaks at the start of the public health crisis, cruise lines still had some of the strictest protocols in the travel and hospitality industries last year. While restaurants, concert halls, airlines and public transport systems have already abandoned mandatory masking and proof of vaccination, cruise lines have maintained strict public health rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus . In addition, major cruise lines each required crew members to be vaccinated.
As the pandemic wanes, causing a sales boom in cruise bookings, proximity to a cruise ship will be a real test for the industry and many travelers with and without vaccinations who choose to risk contracting the virus during their cruise vacation.
Carnival said its sales nearly doubled on August 15 – the first business day after announcing that unvaccinated people would be welcome on cruises of less than 16 nights from September 6 – compared to same-day bookings. in 2019.
Officials at Norwegian, which will allow passengers on all sailings regardless of their vaccination status from September 3, told investors on a recent quarterly earnings call that the announcement was “an instant catalyst” for a deluge of reservations.
Infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists recognize people’s desire to get out of the pandemic, but are wary of the cruise industry’s relaxation of public health protocols.
“It’s adapted not to kill us and to get us out into the crowd so it can spread; that’s what the virus wants, so cruise ships are cooperating with the virus in a sense,” said Dr. William Greenough, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who has studied the epidemics like influenza and norovirus on cruise ships. .
“If I had one recommendation to make, it would be to test people who are immune. They won’t get seriously ill, but they can still spread the virus, so why take the risk? They should test everyone on board.
Greenough believes vaccinated passengers can go on cruises, but said he would advise people without a vaccine not to sail. He also recommended passengers wear masks indoors on cruises.
Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, recommended consumers read COVID-19 protocols carefully and choose cruises in which vaccination and testing for all passengers is always on. required.
“If you’re going on a cruise where people aren’t vaccinated and people aren’t tested before boarding, a potential traveler should ask themselves if they’re ready to catch COVID while on vacation,” Justman said. “Who wants to be sick on a cruise ship? You paid a lot of money for it.
Justman also expressed concern for crew and medical personnel on ships carrying unvaccinated passengers.
“The vaccine requirement is more, in my opinion, a way to alleviate some of the medical burden on cruise personnel. Vaccinated people are less likely to have a serious illness and should be evacuated from the ship or have a situation potentially deadly,” she said.
Brian Schmitt, a travel agent in Tampa, said consumers are confused about COVID-19 protocols that vary by cruise line.
“After the CDC ended its cruise program in mid-July, it removed the standard for COVID protocols and now cruise lines are acting individually and removing things at a different pace, creating a lot of confusion among consumers,” Schmitt said. “I got a lot of calls from people who weren’t vaccinated, or who have someone in their family or group of friends who isn’t vaccinated. I couldn’t find anyone who said, ‘I don’t want cruising because there will be unvaccinated people around me.”
Ashley Peterson, a travel blogger who was on a Carnival cruise last year which had people on board infected with the pandemic disease during the omicron variant surge, also recommended passengers carefully read cruise line policies on what happens if you test positive for COVID-19 while you are are on the ship.
“We are in a different place than we were 9 months ago when I sailed, but read the fine print. If you catch COVID, do they cover quarantine hotel? Or are they just kicking you off the ship? said Peterson. “Make sure you are covered, either by the cruise line or your own travel insurance.
Returning to PortMiami, retired and veteran cruiser Tipka said she isn’t shy about taking the risk of cruising with passengers who choose not to get a coronavirus shot.
“I got my shot and my booster, I’m ready for another booster when it’s recommended to me, so I feel good about sailing,” she said. “I don’t mind sailing with unvaccinated people.”
New Pandemic Protocols for South Florida’s Largest Cruise Lines:
Carnival Cruise Line: Beginning September 6, unvaccinated passengers will be permitted on Carnival cruises of less than 16 days, but must present a negative antigenic virus test performed within three days of cruise departure. Passengers with proof of vaccination do not need a test. Children under 5 are exempt from all vaccine and testing requirements.
Royal Caribbean: As of September 5, cruise ships departing from US ports will no longer require vaccination. Although the cruise line will not require proof of vaccination, company officials have recommended that passengers bring their vaccination cards in case local authorities at ports of call ask for them. Unvaccinated passengers must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure of a trip.
This story was originally published August 24, 2022 4:30 a.m.