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When Can We Cruise Again — and Will It Be Safe?

Passengers will find lots of changes onboard in the coronavirus era

a docked cruise ship

George Mdivanian/EyeEm/Getty Images

En español | Many types of travel have collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic, but no sector has been hit harder than cruise lines. The industry suffered a public relations calamity when the virus exploded in February on big ships like the Diamond Princess, spurring ports to turn others away out of fear that passengers might transmit it.

But come 2021, cruising is poised to return. With the Oct. 30 expiration of the no-sail order set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency established new guidelines for cruising to resume operations in U.S. waters. The new Framework for Conditional Sailing Order applies to ships carrying at least 250 people, including crew, and requires cruise lines to demonstrate their infection control measures as well as run simulated voyages without paying passengers.

Meanwhile, the CDC still gives cruise ship travel its highest warning, level 3 (“Avoid nonessential travel”), as “COVID-19 appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships and boats.” Between March 1 and July 10, the agency discovered nearly 3,000 cases of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 and 34 deaths across 123 ships. 

The steps required for ships to be certified to sail by the CDC means that most cruises won’t resume until January, at the earliest. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 95 percent of the industry, said its members would suspend operations through the end of the year in order to comply with new guidelines. This includes Carnival Corp., which runs Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, Princess and Seabourn lines; Royal Caribbean International, which includes Azamara, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Silversea lines; and Norwegian Cruise Line.

Currently, the companies are booking cruises departing January and beyond. For instance, you can book a seven-day Caribbean voyage (starting at $449 per person) with Norwegian Cruise Line that departs San Juan on Jan. 31 and includes stops in St. Thomas, Tortola and on the line’s private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. Yet, due to COVID-19, the State Department has a Reconsider Travel advisory for the British Virgin Islands and a Do Not Travel warning for the Bahamas.

Before its recent decision, the agency sought feedback from the public and received nearly 13,000 comments in the 60-day comment period that ended Sept. 21.  Three-quarters of those commenting supported restarting cruising, and most of those asked for increased public health measures, including wearing masks, requiring COVID-19 tests and shipboard social distancing.

They are likely to see all of those features on their next voyage. Here are just a few ways cruising — when it comes back — will be different during the pandemic (and maybe beyond).

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Shorter cruises, shipboard testing and social distancing

Under the new rules, cruises are capped at seven days. The CDC will require ships to provide rapid COVID-19 tests of passengers and crew on the days of embarkation and disembarkation.

Future travelers can also expect temperature screenings on embarkation and socially distanced seating everywhere — from dining rooms to pool decks. Holland America has said it will convert buffet restaurants to serviced ones. 

“[Cruise ship] travelers like that there’s a certain ease of travel and a lively party atmosphere,” says Jeff Gurtman, managing director of the Coyle Hospitality Group, which has consulted with many cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess. “Cruise lines will have to deal with how to ensure safe distancing” while providing that feeling of fun.

CLIA member cruise lines have also agreed on a series of health protocols, including mask wearing when social distancing is impossible, having cabins set aside for quarantines and permitting shore excursions only with operators that adhere to the ship’s public health protocols.  

There are likely to be fewer interactions between passengers and crew, and reservations required for group activities, to limit the number of participants, says Virginia Sheridan, spokeswoman for Seatrade Cruise Global, the international cruise industry’s largest professional conference.

Better ventilation

CLIA’s new health protocols call for “air management and ventilation strategies to increase fresh air onboard,” though the association stops short of mandating enhanced filtration and other technologies, recommending them “where feasible.”

In the meantime, some are promising improved air filtration. Norwegian Cruise Line reports on its site that as part of its Sail Safe initiative, it’s installing “medical-grade air filters, H13 HEPA, that remove 99.95 percent of airborne pathogens across our entire fleet to ensure the air you breathe is clean.”

Holland America Line is adding HEPA filters to “Medical Centers and dedicated isolation rooms.”

Simplified itineraries

Complicating the attempts to relaunch is the fact that some itineraries include stops at ports in different countries with different (and evolving) health requirements. Rules in the Caribbean can be particularly complex (see our story). When it resumes sailing, for instance, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, which operates between West Palm Beach and Nassau, will follow visitor protocols established by the Bahamas and require a negative COVID-19 test within five days of arrival.

And Europe, Canada and other parts of the world are still not allowing American visitors.

Itineraries may change as a result. “There may be fewer ports of call, cruises to nowhere or cruises that focus on one country,” Sheridan says.

Future travelers can also expect COVID-19 tests on embarkation and disembarkation, socially distanced seating everywhere — from dining rooms to pool decks — and no self-service buffets.

Future travelers can also expect temperature screenings on embarkation, reduced passenger numbers, socially distanced seating everywhere from dining rooms to pool decks, and no self-service buffets.

A move toward small-ship cruising

Small cruise lines capable of carrying fewer than 250 people, including passengers and crew, are excluded from the CDC protocols on cruising and are permitted to sail in the U.S. Some smaller lines have announced their return to sailing, including American Cruise Lines, which operates boats with capacities between 100 and 190 passengers on American rivers and plans to begin sailing with a few trips in December (it has even launched a new ship, American Jazz, on the Mississippi this fall).

Some travelers may find small ships less risky; fewer people mean a lower likelihood of having a case of COVID-19 on board, and, Sheridan points out, smaller ships are able to visit smaller, less crowded ports. But even small boats have had problems with coronavirus infections. Hurtigruten, the Norwegian expedition line, restarted operations in July but had to dock its ship the MS Roald Amundsen when 36 crew members and several passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

This month, according to Travel Weekly, a French ship carrying 72 passengers from the small luxury cruise line Ponant curtailed its voyage early, after 19 crew and passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.

And in Alaska, UnCruise Adventures, which runs small ships on wilderness trips, also had to cancel its maiden voyage of the season, set for an Aug. 1 departure, when one of its passengers received a positive COVID-19 test result three days into the trip (Alaska requires all out-of-state visitors to be tested upon arrival). Follow-up tests of crew and passengers were all negative, but the 36 passengers had to quarantine in Alaska for two days while waiting for results, and the company decided to cancel the year’s remaining cruises. It’s currently advocating for wider access to rapid COVID-19 testing.

Planning way ahead — with flexibility

Given the surge of infections globally and shifting regulations, most cruise lines are selling future itineraries with flexible cancellation policies that allow travelers to roll their investment forward to a future cruise if they decide to cancel. And now space is getting tight for some popular itineraries because so many people who had planned to sail in 2020 have already rebooked for 2021, says June Kleier, a travel adviser based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She adds that many received 125 percent credit on their future sailings and so they have been upgrading to nicer cabins.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 1, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new developments, including the CDC’s changes to its rules for cruise lines.

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