Although most of the bigger cruise lines require full vaccination for their passengers to be permitted to sail, new outbreaks of the highly contagious Omicron variant and of the coronavirus on their ships have moved them to tighten their policy regarding onboard face masks.
“With the recent uptick of Covid-19 in the world and added Omicron variant concerns, we feel it prudent to temporarily tighten our onboard health protocols to require masks indoors at all times, unless actively eating or drinking,” the cruise line Royal Caribbean advised guests. “Despite the new requirement, we know you will still have a great time onboard.”
Outbreak on the biggest cruise ship
The announcement came after at least 48 people on board one the world’s largest cruise ships, the Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas that docked in Miami over the past weekend, tested positive for the virus.
The ship had more than 6,000 passengers and crew on a week-long journey when one of the passengers tested positive. The other cases were detected following contact tracing.
The infection occurred despite the company’s rule mandating all passengers aged 12 and above to be fully vaccinated and tested negative before departure.
Now the company also “strongly recommends” guests to receive a booster shot prior to sailing. Crew members must also be fully vaccinated and test at least once a week.
Unvaccinated children on board Symphony of the Seas are required to show a negative PCR, and also test negative pre-departure.
The Norwegian cruise company is now requiring the use of masks after an outbreak of coronavirus on board earlier this month in its Norwegian Breakaway ship, where at least 17 passengers and crew tested positive for Covid-19, one of them suspected to have the Omicron variant.
Since April, the company requires that “all guests and crew must be fully vaccinated, at least two weeks prior to departure, in order to board. Passengers sailing on any Norwegian Cruise Line ship need to be vaccinated with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Medicines Agency (EMA), and/or World Health Organization (WHO) authorized single brand vaccinations.”
Working to recover their reputation
After a lengthy shutdown due to the high rates of infections aboard their ships during the height last year of the pandemic, the cruise companies took stringent measures and developed new Covid protocols to minimize outbreaks and return to their reputation as places for “safest vacations.”
Nevertheless, according to the New York Times, while “many lines are adjusting their masking, testing and vaccine rules, criticism is mounting about the lack of transparency in reporting positive cases to passengers and crew members.”
The article refers to the fact that by the time the Norwegian Breakaway “docked in New Orleans on December 4 after a week-long cruise that included stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, 17 coronavirus cases had been identified on the ship, including a case of the new Omicron variant. The local and federal health authorities were notified — but not all the disembarking passengers.”
A multibillion-dollar industry in crisis
Before the pandemic, the cruise liners were “the titans of the oceans, raking in billions in profit as their city-sized passenger populations traveled across the globe,” according to CNN.
Last year, “many of these floating palaces became coronavirus epicenters, turned away from port after port as Covid cases rose on board and the pandemic escalated on land.”
The crisis forced many cruise operators to cut losses and retire ships earlier than planned as the industry became one of the hardest hit with public confidence in cruise holidays plummeting after a series of outbreaks occurred on cruise liners as the pandemic spread.
The crisis, however, has bolstered the business of dismantling and recycling ships, which grew some 30% this year.
Hopes for recovery?
Since the revival of operations in the United States in June, “efforts to keep the coronavirus at bay — or at least contained, unlike the major outbreaks experienced in 2020 — have been largely successful,” reported the New York Times.
The new rule on mandatory use of masks follows the implementation of additional health and safety measures, including enhanced cleaning, vaccination passes, testing and implementing strict protocols to swiftly identify coronavirus cases onboard and reduce their spread.
The new cases are fueling concerns that the spreading Omicron variant could stymie the industry’s recovery.