Late in October 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended its strong pandemic-related cruise ship health and safety regulations until January 15, 2022, in response to the continued threat of the Delta variant.
After that time, the agency said, cruise lines may follow the rules, first established in October 2020, on a voluntary basis – with CDC input. The transition should align with other travel order around the globe, the agency noted.
So what does that mean for cruisers? Does that mean that all the cruise health and safety rules that the industry has operated on since its summer 2021 restart go out to the window?
The answer: No. Don’t expect much change in current cruise line health and safety rules, at least in the first several months of 2022.
There are strong signs that cruise line passenger and crew vaccine requirements, testing requirements, mask regulations and social distancing (particularly for unvaccinated cruisers) are here to stay.
Here’s why: They are working.
Cruising was halted by the CDC for 15 months in March 2020, and restarted in June 2021 – and only after the agency began clearing ships that could prove they had the intense new health and safety rules in place.
On cruises from Florida, where state lawsuits have questioned vaccine requirements, cruise lines have been following the rules established by the CDC on a voluntary basis for several months.
The CDC recently released data showing the number of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships that occurred while its rules were in place.
There were 1,359 positive COVID-19 cases on ships embarking from the U.S. between June 26 and Oct. 21, according to the agency. Many were vaccinated people with no symptoms (their positive status was determined during required testing). There were 49 people who required hospitalization and one passenger died after contracting COVID-19 on a cruise ship. During that period some 600,000 passengers sailed. There were no major COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships.
The cruise lines and CDC were always clear there would be cases, but the idea was that spread could be mitigated – in fact, a lot of the rules established by the agency in its Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), and by the cruise lines themselves, have to do with handling and containing any outbreaks.
Cruise lines have indicated they hope to increase occupancy – during the startup period many have been operating only half full, although those figures have been steadily growing. But the rules established by the CDC and the cruise lines themselves are here to stay, at least until the number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is contained.
Where there may be some loosening on rules, at some point, is with those cruise lines that have mask-wearing requirements in place, even with all passengers vaccinated and tested. These may change, eventually.
This week, Royal Caribbean International extended its vaccine requirements and other COVID-19 related regulations until March 31, 2022, for sailings from Puerto Rico, Barbados and U.S. mainland homeports.
In a note to travel advisors, the cruise line said its health and safety protocols were subject to change. But for now, all guests age 12 and older still must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated. Vaccinated guests must take a COVID-19 test no more than two days before sailing. Unvaccinated children ages 2 to 11 must be tested no more than three days prior to sailing – and will also take a complimentary PCR test at check-in.
Restrictions on what unvaccinated guests can do onboard and on shore also remain in place on Royal Caribbean ships.
During his company’s third quarter earnings call in late October 2021, Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain said the CDC’s announcement that it would continue its CSO into January, and let cruise lines operate their own rules after that, was "very welcome," and that the company’s own requirements "are stricter than the CSO anyhow." He also opined that the confidence that the CDC is showing in setting a date when its rules would end should translate into a confidence boost for potential cruisers.
"While the CSO comes to its kind of a technical end on January 15, we will continue our ongoing collaboration with the CDC in terms of the protocols that will voluntarily operate after the CSO expires," added Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International. "And I think what's happened over this past several months is that we've really got a focused, collaborative effort and we found the relationship with the CDC has been very constructive. They certainly – and we want to make sure that we're operating safely."
Bayley said some of the protocols “will naturally fall away as the pandemic moves further and further in the rearview mirror. So I think as we move into '22, hopefully, what we'll see is the protocols become easier and less cumbersome for our customers.”
Royal is not the only company committing to health and safety protocols beyond January 15, 2022.
Carnival Cruise Line notified guests on November 11 that its established health and safety protocols would be in place through March 22, 2022. "Our vaccinated voyages continue to operate very successfully, and our guests continue to express great satisfaction with our onboard experience, while enjoying a safe and memorable vacation," the line said.
During his company’s third quarter earnings call earlier this month, Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings also made it clear that the current 100 percent vaccine requirement for Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises would remain in place "indefinitely."
Norwegian officials also expressed they were in no hurry to ramp up to full occupancy.
Holland America Line updated its rules on November 1, to require all guests on U.S. sailings through February 2022 show proof of vaccination and proof of a negative, medically observed antigen of PCR taken within two days of embarkation.
There’s also a marketing factor in play. Cruise lines have been telling the public since the industry shut down in March 2020 that they could come back as the safest form of travel in the world. They don’t want to lose that momentum.
"The industry can only benefit from reducing these risk perceptions and anxieties by continuing to reassure travelers about ongoing efforts to protect their health and safety," says Robert Kwortnik, associate professor of services marketing at the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.
"This likely means sticking with vaccination mandates, proof of negative COVID tests, and behavioral expectations, such as mask wearing when indoors."
Consumers have also come to expect rigorous hygiene and sanitation measures and other methods to reduce transmission.
"It's notable that demand for cruising is strong, even with strict health protocols and behavioral expectations for guests," Kwortnik says. "Interestingly, too, the industry is reporting very high guest satisfaction ratings despite—or maybe because of—the changes in these protocols and behavioral expectations. There’s too much at stake for the industry to throw caution to the wind so soon after returning to service."
One area where polices may change is with kids, especially now that those ages 5 to 11 are eligible to be vaccinated. Cruise lines may put in place additional rules requiring vaccinations for kids. For now, unvaccinated kids are allowed on select ships – with testing, mask wearing, social distancing and other rules specific rules in place.
There could also, potentially, be a new requirement for adults down the road requiring booster vaccines, as the third shots become available to a larger segment of the population.
Updated November 12, 2021