Several lines, including U.K.-based Saga Cruises, American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister-company Victory Cruise Lines, and Crystal Cruises have mandated mandatory vaccinations for passengers. Others, such as Royal Caribbean, will be requiring vaccinations for passengers travelling on new itineraries. Norwegian Cruise Line has made vaccinations mandatory through November 1, at least. And others still -- like Avalon Waterways -- will accept either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test.
Yet there a lot of details still need to be worked out with these requirements. Here are the burning questions we have about COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cruise ships.
Mandating vaccinations for a line like Saga, which exclusively caters to adults over 50 years old, is pretty clear cut.
Less obvious is what will happen on lines that either accept or cater to families. While no family-friendly, mass-market cruise line has mandated COVID-19 vaccinations yet, Crystal's guidelines published on its website (PDF) state that all passengers, regardless of age, must be vaccinated.
Here's the problem: Most manufacturers aren't recommending the COVID-19 vaccine for people under 12 months. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for those 16 and up; Moderna for ages 18 and up.
A FAQ published by Connecticut Children's states a full pediatric vaccine for those up to 16 years of age won't be available until at least the end of 2021.
"Both Pfizer and Moderna recently began new vaccine trials including children as young as age 12," reads a statement on Connecticut Children's website. "If they're successful, the data will need to go through FDA review, followed by the time it takes for production and distribution. This process can take awhile, especially for very young ages, which are usually tested last."
Right now, only a handful of vaccines have been recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. In the European Union, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines have been approved for use.
Crystal states that it will only accept COVID-19 vaccinations approved by the FDA and authorities in the European Union. But there are more vaccines out there, and which one you get will depend on your country of residence and will likely happen without your input.
In Canada, Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are authorized for use. But there is a domestic COVID-19 vaccine being produced by Providence Therapeutics called mNRA that could be rolled out later this year and into 2022. However, unless the FDA or EU were to approve this vaccine, anyone receiving it would still ineligible to sail as Crystal Cruises does not recognize vaccines approved by Health Canada.
The issue is even more complicated for crewmembers. While the Philippines has acquired several million doses of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, it has also secured 25 million doses developed by China's Sinovac Biotech, while India's Bharat Biotech has applied for emergency use permissions in the Philippines.
Filipinos likely won't have a choice over which vaccine they receive. And that raises the question: If you have a crewmember vaccinated with product developed in China or India, is that crewmember no longer allowed to join the vessel when the choice over what vaccine they get is largely out of their control?
Saga has announced that all passengers, but not crew, will be required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination before boarding. Presumably, this could still result in crew falling ill or unable to perform their duties. And while the vaccines provide a high degree of coverage, they are not 100 percent.
As the resumption of cruise operations is still months away as of this writing, expect more lines to provide additional clarity on this point going forward. Lines have implemented testing, masking and other procedures to keep passengers safe.
Some lines, like American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines, are mandating that all passengers, crew and even corporate office staff traveling to the ships, be vaccinated against COVID-19.
For passengers residing in the United States or United Kingdom, where vaccine roll-outs are progressing at a steady pace, there is a good chance there will be ample time to be vaccinated before cruising resumes.
Younger travelers, however, might not be so lucky. People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are generally at the back of the line when it comes to vaccine rollouts, and when they are eligible to be vaccinated will largely depend on their state or province's rollout plan.
Your ability to be vaccinated will also depend on your country of residence. Canada has seen its vaccine program largely stall out after repeated delays in delivering promised vaccines from manufacturers, potentially pushing back the country's initial timeline that promised a vaccine for any Canadian who wanted it by September.
The same is true for residents of New Zealand, which are only now starting to see vaccine rollouts to essential workers. Even countries in the European Union had seen their vaccine rollouts slow in recent weeks due to production delays.
The U.S., by comparison, is vaccinated its citizens at a rapid rate -- so much so that on April 19, President Biden announced any American adult is now eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
For American cruisers, the outlook is rosy. For everyone else, the ability to be vaccinated in a timely manner is a wild card that is beyond the control of the average person.
By and large, those who are booked on a cruise with a vaccine mandate will not be able to sail until they have been fully inoculated. That means if you're booked to sail in July, but you know you won't get a vaccine until fall, call your cruise line and either push or cancel your voyage.
According to Crystal's FAQ page, you'll be refused boarding if only one person has been fully vaccinated. That means if you're traveling with children who are ineligible to be vaccinated, or an individual who cannot due to medical reasons, you will be denied boarding as well.
Until information becomes clearer on what this looks like and how children will be treated, don't risk it. Contact your cruise line (if your cruise line is mandating COVID-19 vaccination) and ensure you clarify with them their exact policy.
Chances are, yes, you will still have to wear a mask in public areas and physically distance even after being vaccinated. Don't expect to be vaccinated and resume sailing as if it were 2019 again. Procedures and practices to keep passengers and crew healthy and safe will likely still be a part of the cruise experience, at least initially, and likely until the pandemic ceases to be a global health emergency as defined by the World Health Organization.
As the global health pandemic progresses and cruise lines come closer to returning to service, more will be known about which lines are requiring proof of vaccination, and what rules and regulations they each have in place.
Much like cancellation, refund and future cruise credit policies throughout this pandemic, don't expect vaccination rules and requirements to be the same from one line to another. Always check with your travel agent to see what the most up-to-date requirements are, and keep an eye on the cruise line's website, as new health and safety practices will be posted online and communicated to booked passengers.