(11:24 a.m. ET) -- Small-ship expedition cruise line UnCruise Adventures announced yesterday that it will no longer require passengers to take pre-cruise COVID-19 tests before sailing, effective from March 25, 2022. The American-owned company also stated that their ships will encourage guests to wear masks while on board but will no longer require them.
Cruise Critic was given notice of the line's updated COVID-19 policies via email last night. UnCruise stated decreased COVID-19 transmission rates across the U.S. and the dissolving mask mandates around the country as an impetus for the new update to their pre-cruise testing and masking policies.
"Safety is still of the utmost importance, and due to the close environs of a small ship cruising experience, we will continue to require all crew and guests to be fully vaccinated, including booster shots," the email said. The email went on to note that "should future evolution of the disease cause governmental and CDC requirements to increase again, UnCruise would follow suit."
UnCruise is now the first cruise line to do away with pre-cruise testing, though several lines have already loosened their mask rules.
"Guests are feeling a bit of relief and excitement in moving away from onboard mask mandates," UnCruise CEO Capitan Dan Blanchard told Cruise Critic in an exclusive statement. "This is not a surprise as people continue to be anxious about restrictions and many places have now moved away from masks in public places of close proximity such as inside dining."
At the time we spoke, Blanchard said that the guest response to the change has so far been positive, and that UnCruise doesn't expect any (or many) cancellations due to the change at this time. He stated that the line has set aside isolation cabins for possible infections of guests and crew (the line's website mentions the number of these cabins is "one or two" per ship), will keep rapid tests onboard for use as needed, and that onboard medicial personnel will be wokring with shoreside medical personnel to determine if an infected person "should be kept on the boat or moved to a local facility that is never more than a couple of hours away."
Could UnCruise's decision to nix their pre-cruise testing be a sign of things to come? Possibly -- but there's an important distinction that should be made here.
UnCruise operates intimate adventure cruises in popular outdoors destinations such as Alaska, Mexico, the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Galapagos, to name a few, on vessels that usually measure less than 200 feet long and carry less than 80 passengers. This means that UnCruise is not eligible for the CDC's Voluntary COVID-19 Program, which applies to cruise ships with a passenger capacity over 250. As such, UnCruise can set and follow its own COVID-19 guidelines and practices, including rules around testing, masking, isolation, and more.
When asked about the reasons behind UnCruise's decision to drop pre-cruise testing, Blanchard explained, "Our guests and crew are required to be fully vaccinated and boosted to sail aboard our small ships. This protection is proving more than adequate based on our own experience, and that of CDC and our local health authorities, given the variants that are currently in play.
"If a variant of substance crops up, we will respond as needed, which may include a return to pre-testing and masks. Given that our adventure cruises don’t make typical port calls, and those guests are kayaking, hiking, paddle boarding, snorkeling, and taking skiff tours, the risk is very low. Our adventure cruises are not about staying onboard the ship, but rather about the joys of exploring the great outdoors."
While it's too early to say, it's unlikely the CDC will abolish its pre-cruise testing requirements for larger ships that are a part of the agency's volunteer cruise program, though, in the past month, the CDC has lowered its Travel Health Notice rating for cruise ships down to a Level 2: Moderate (levels of COVID-19) from a Level 4: Very high (levels of COVID-19), the highest possible notice level.