This weekend I sat down to write a blog post about travel styles and came across several vloggers talking about cruise ships being denied access to their PRIVATELY owned islands by the country that had jurisdictional authority over the islands due to COVID infection rates on board their ships. These stories combined with the CDC’s recent travel advisory encouraging travelers to avoid cruising for the near future suggest that cruising is not safe from a COVID point of view. This sent me down a Rona Rabbit Hole as I started looking into this matter further in an attempt to answer questions that began percolating. I started wondering about things like on board infection rates for cruise ships, refund policies, COVID restrictions in place for being able to travel, and on board procedures for infected travelers.
Cruise ships have long had a reputation for being floating Petri dishes; giant viral incubators and cruise lines have worked for decades to overcome this. With hundreds or thousands of people in close quarters for extended periods of time, disease can spread across a ships population. The most common viral outbreak prior to COVID was the Norovirus which causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This virus is very transmissible through direct contact and contact with contaminated surfaces. Per the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program fact page, 74 million passengers traveled on ships tracked by the program from 2008 to 2014. During that period 129,678 passengers met the criteria for being reported to the CDC under the program and only 10% of those passengers had Norovirus. 2018 saw the lowest Norovirus case numbers since 2001 with 10 outbreaks, according to an article by Florida Today published in 2019. Part of this decrease is attributed to the close work the CDC‘s Vessel Sanitation Program has been doing with the Cruise Industry to improve sanitation practices and the spread of disease on ships. The “enhanced cleaning policies and procedures” many places have adopted since the pandemic started, we’re already being implemented in the cruise industry.
Given the highly contagious nature of COVID, the CDC has implemented some very strict reporting guidelines and a color coding system for cruise ships based on infection rates. For a ship to have a green designation they have to have 0 cases of COVID amongst the crew or passengers. Orange designation is given to ships who have had reported cases of COVID totaling less than 0.01% of passengers (a ship of 7,000 passengers with less than 7 confirmed cases would meet this criteria) and 0 crew members. A yellow designation is given to ships with reported cases of 0.01% of the passenger population and/or at least 1 case reported amongst the crew. Ships with a Red designation have confirmed onboard transmission, greater than 0.01% infection rates, or a potential for cases to overwhelm ships medical facilities. Currently, per the CDC website, all but 16 ships participating in the monitoring program are at a yellow designation. The 16 ships that do not have a yellow designation all have green. 15 of those are either not in use or crew only vessels. The 16th ship is the ResidentSeas World, which is a floating condo.
So, what are cruise lines doing to keep passengers safe? While policies and procedures differ slightly depending on departure location and cruise line, there are some common policies and procedures across all major cruise lines That people should be aware of. All crew members and passengers over the age of 12 are required to be FULLY vaccinated prior to their cruise date and proof of vaccination needs to be provided. Check with your cruise line about what this means for you based on your departure location. Full vaccination for passengers leaving from Florida, for example, need to have AT LEAST 2 doses of a multi dose vaccine even if that specific vaccine has been approved for single dose use in the country you received it in. All passengers must have a negative PCR test for COVID not more than 2 days before boarding the ship. Children 2-11 must have a negative PCR test not more than 3 days before boarding. Children 2 and under are not required to be tested. On boarding day, you will be given a boarding time and be required to arrive at that time ONLY. Unvaccinated children will have to have a second COVID test at the terminal or on the ship just after boarding. Assuming everything checks out and you get on the ship, masks are required in all indoor public areas of the ship (unless seated and actively eating or drinking) and any outdoor area with large crowds. Cruise lines have implemented stringent cleaning and sanitation procedures for before, during, and after your cruise.
You have made it to your cabin and you are ready to get your cruise on! Sound the alarm, mayday, mayday, a passenger starts school wing sings of COVID. What happens now? Anyone showing signs and symptoms of COVID while on board the ship will be required to take a rapid test and quarantine, along with any close contacts, pending a negative test result. Passengers testing positive will be required to quarantine or disembark depending on circumstances. All the major cruise lines have a policy that offers some kind of refund, often prorated, for passengers affected by COVID; including denied boarding, quarantine, and/or forced disembarkation. Contact your cruise line for specific details in this policy. Royal Caribbean also has a policy that states if a passenger has to leave a cruise early because of COVID the cruise line will coordinate all transportation and lodging needs. as well as associated costs, to get that passenger home. This does not apply to passengers who refuse to comply with COVID policies and procedures.
What about other pre-arranged services like shore excursions? Rules governing shore excursions very by location, so be sure to contact your cruise line for specifics pertaining to shore excursions at places of interest to you. Now, if you miss an excursion because of a COVID exposure, most cruise lines offer some kind of refund on excursions booked through them. I do not know about policies regarding excursions booked through third parties or directly with the excursion provider So be sure to check with them before booking outside of the cruise line.
What happens if my cruise is denied access to a port, or is forced to cut the cruise short because of COVID? While all cruise lines have policies that detail refunds if a cruise is canceled, I have not found anything specific to the ship being denied access to a port or returning home early. Theoretically, all passengers would be entitled a prorated refund under the policy for passengers denied disembarkation due to COVID mentioned above. However, if the ship is denied access to a single port of call, is not covered in any literature that I have found. Like wise, I have not seen any literature addressing the cancelling of onboard entertainment and amenities due to COVID.
The $1,000 question is “Is cruising safe?” Ultimately the answer to that question boils down to a personal choice and your level of comfort in public spaces. Strictly looking at the data, cruise ships generally have a 0.01% infection rate compared to the 30% infection rate across the country one could infer that cruising is safer than most daily activities in public spaces. Especially when you factor in vaccination and mask mandates, the argument could be made for a much smaller risk of infection than
other things. HOWEVER, if you look at the issue from an infection control perspective, the opposite could be said. Historically, it has been proven that infections are very hard to control on a ship. This is due to the fact that you have a few hundred to several thousand people in close proximity— sharing a very small space for an extended period of time.
I think that if you look at the totality of the situation and take appropriate measure to prevent exposure/infection, the risk of getting COVID is no greater on a cruise than in daily life. That being said, I personally do not feel that this is a good time to take a cruise as there are better alternatives. I make that statement because I have seen reports from multiple sources that onboard amenities can be restricted and/or unavailable. When coupled with the possibility of being denied port access or the cruise being turned around, I choose to consider other options for my travel plans. I am not hip on the idea of paying full fair for a cruise where services may be restricted or absent and a refund for those absent services is not guaranteed. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Go forth and travel! Have the time of your life! And, most importantly, be safe.