As health metrics related to COVID-19 continue to improve across the U.S., cruise lines have once again begun to relax restrictions around masks, as well as COVID-19 testing windows.
And so for the first time since summer 2021, cruise passengers this week on Carnival Breeze were enjoying shows, casinos, on-board shopping, and nightclubs, largely without wearing masks. It's the first week that Carnival loosened the requirements for masks indoors, but they are not the only cruise line to do so; other companies within Carnival Corporation such as Princess and Holland America have done the same, as have Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line.
I'm onboard a five-day sailing from Galveston taking part in the cruise, which also happens to be a special event celebrating Carnival Cruise Line's 50th anniversary. As such, the sailing has incorporated special events, meet-ups with different Carnival cruise ships and a general air of fun.
What's it like to shed the mask and go back to "normal," somewhat? Here's a bit about my experience onboard.
While Masks are Optional, Testing and Vaccinations are Not
While masks are now optional indoors, other health and safety protocols are still in place, albeit somewhat easier for vaccinated and boosted passengers. The cruise line extended the pre-cruise COVID-19 testing window to 72 hours from the previous 48 hours, for example.
Full vaccinations are required for passengers ages 5 and up in order to sail, with a limited amount of medical exemptions for those who cannot receive a COVID vaccine.
And Carnival is not promoting the environment as a free-for-all. Masks are still recommended – but not required – while indoors, except for eating or drinking or while in a stateroom. They are still required during embarkation and debarkation during all ports of call and on Carnival-organized shore excursions. Carnival provided all guests with KN95 masks in their staterooms, and medical-grade masks were available at other times.
Crew members are also still required to wear masks. Check your cruise line's COVID policies carefully to make sure you are up to date on the latest requirements, as they are subject to change.
After cruising a few times over the past year where onboard masking was either required or strongly encouraged, at first removing masks felt a bit strange, particularly because ships are now sailing near capacity as the U.S. heads into spring break.
But I was also surprised at how much I missed face-to-face communication with newfound friends on board a cruise. Having meals, drinks, and dancing with strangers (a/k/a newfound friends) was always one of my favorite aspects of cruising, and removing masks from the equation has made that possible once again.
Masking Requirements on Cruises Have Been Controversial
As on land, masking has been a polarizing issue throughout the pandemic, with strong opinions on both sides. For the most part, cruisers on the Carnival Breeze this week happily shed their masks, with a few people still choosing to wear them on the nearly full ship.
At least one social media post prior to the trip celebrated the new mask-optional policy, while another cruiser lamented she'd bought theme masks needlessly.
Several people we spoke to had already taken cruises during the pandemic and had become accustomed to the industry's frequently changing masking, testing and vaccine requirements. This week they enjoyed having one last thing to think about
"I haven't seen this many people not wearing a mask in one place in a long time … and I live in Texas" where masking in public has been relaxed for the past year, said cruiser Amber Sebastian of Grapevine.
A nurse from Witchita Falls, Texas, said she understood why cruise lines had to prioritize safety when making their masking policies and said she'd happily follow the rules in order to keep cruising.
"I would go in a hazmat suit if I had to," she said, noting her indifference to the changing mask requirements and other rules.
Being onboard a ship with no mask requirement and nearly full capacity feels as close to pre-pandemic cruising as possible.
Whether it was the convivial energy among the passengers around the 50th anniversary or the loosening of mask restrictions, the cruise has really felt more carefree and lively. Dance floors have been jam-packed most nights with little to no social distancing, and the traditional lines have returned to the buffet and other popular eateries on the ship.
Crew are Still Masked -- For Now
What is a bit jarring is seeing the crew members still working in KN95 masks round the clock, both inside and outside — a reminder of how hard they have worked from the outset of the pandemic to prioritize passenger safety at the expense of their own comfort.
Now two years into the pandemic, crew members say the mask requirements are just part of their job – a job that two years ago, they weren't sure they would ever be able to return to. They said policies follow specific CDC guidelines set down for cruise lines.
"For us as crew members we're probably going to be in masks for the next six month to a year," Cruise Director Jonathan "Cookie" Adams during a Q&A session with passengers on Breeze. "Which is fine, because we just want to stay safe and up and running."