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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

cruise ship in the Caribbean

David Sacks/Getty Images

En español | When the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship set sail from Genoa, Italy, in mid-August, the industry held its breath. It was the first large ship to depart since the onset of the pandemic — limited to less than half of its capacity of 6,300 passengers, all European, and with a range of safety measures to prevent spread of coronavirus onboard. The line went so far as to deny reboarding to a family that broke away from its group ("social bubble") on a shore excursion, a violation of the new rules. To its observers’ relief, the voyage remained COVID-free.

Much of travel has collapsed during the pandemic, but no sector has been hit harder than cruising, which suffered a public relations calamity when the virus exploded in February on big ships like the Diamond Princess, spurring ports to turn others away, fearful the passengers might transmit it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found nearly 3,000 cases of COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 and 34 deaths across 123 ships between March 1 and July 10.

The CDC issued a no-sail order for U.S. cruise lines that expires Sept. 30 (though it may be extended), and the major cruise lines voluntarily have suspended operations through Oct. 31.

Some lines, in this country and internationally, have suspended trips well beyond that date: Princess Cruises canceled its early 2021 world cruises — including its 88-day Island Princess 2021 World Cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Rome, scheduled to depart Jan. 5 — “due to restrictions and limitations with border and port access” and the uncertainty of air travel. The luxury cruise line Cunard announced that its ships won't sail until at least March 25, 2021; Queen Mary 2's 99-day world voyage departing England on Jan. 10, 2021, was canceled.

The CDC is treading carefully when it comes to cruising: The agency has offered interim guidance while seeking input from the public by Sept. 21, through the Federal Register, on what practices ship operators should adopt to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the cruise lines are still booking cruises departing November, December and beyond. You can book a 7-day Caribbean cruise (starting at $949 per person) with Norwegian Cruise Line departing Miami Nov. 21 and including stops in Cozumel, Mexico, and Belize, for instance. Yet the State Department has a Do Not Travel advisory for both countries, due to COVID-19 .

"We have tension between the industry trying to tell people they're going to start back and the reality that they may start back in some imaginary time,” said Ross Klein, a sociologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland who catalogs industry problems at his website “The real question is: How safe are you from the risk?"

Here are just a few ways cruising will be different during the pandemic (and maybe beyond):

Temperature checks and social distancing

Like MSC Cruises, Carnival Corporation plans to launch its first ship, from the Italian line Costa Cruises, with predeparture COVID-19 testing of all passengers and crew. The Costa Deliziosa is scheduled to sail Sept. 6 from Trieste and carry only Italian passengers, who will be subject to an antigen test for quick results. Anyone with a positive result will be subject to a secondary PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test.

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, according to Jeff Gurtman, managing director of the Coyle Hospitality Group, which has consulted with many cruise lines, including Carnival and Princess.

"[Cruise ship] travelers like that there's a certain ease of travel and a lively party atmosphere,” Gurtman says. “Cruise lines will have to deal with how to ensure safe distancing” while providing that feeling of fun.

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

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Carnival plans to have COVID-19 testing capabilities onboard, dedicated quarantine areas in case of infection and contact tracing systems, and touts the presence of highly trained medical staff.

The cruise lines have not announced a blanket policy on masks for passengers, though they are required for crew. Norwegian Cruise Line says on its site that it is still establishing procedures. Passengers may be asked to wear masks at least in public areas indoors, as the European Union has recommended in its guidance for the safe restarting of voyages in Europe.

Better ventilation

Readers of the website say they're largely ready to cruise again — 72 percent in its recent survey of 2,511 readers said they would book again — but they are interested in whether cruise ships will remodel their ventilation systems, which may have spread the virus at sea.

"Cruise lines are waiting on the science on how the virus spreads” before making such a major change, said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic. 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% of airborne pathogens across our entire fleet to ensure the air you breathe is clean.”

The luxury small-ship cruise line Windstar Cruises says, “Hospital grade high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters along with a UV-C air zapping process (ultraviolet germicidal irradiation) are being installed on board all Windstar yachts.”

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. When it resumes sailing Oct. 1, 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 10 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 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 ban on cruising and are currently 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 again later this month (it's even launching a new ship, American Jazz, on the Mississippi on Sept. 26).

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 ships 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.

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 test result three days into the trip (Alaska requires all out-of-state visitors 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

While many cruise lines have not announced when they will resume sailing, most 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. So many travelers who'd planned to sail in 2020 have already rebooked for 2021 that space is getting tight for some popular itineraries, says June Kleier, a travel adviser based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She adds that many were given 125 percent credit on their future sailings and so have been upgrading to nicer cabins.

Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, CEO of Celebrity Cruises, says that 60 percent of the line's future bookings are new as opposed to rescheduled (Europe and Alaska are particularly popular, she reports). Such bookings are not terribly risky, even during the pandemic, under the company's Cruise With Confidence policy, which includes no fee to reschedule any trip departing through May 4, 2022, up to 48 hours before departure.

Royal Caribbean is offering its own flexible policy for trips booked by Sept. 30, allowing travelers to cancel up to 48 hours before departure and get a credit valid through 2021. Norwegian has a similar policy for 2020 cruises. On 2021 sailings through October 2021, trips may be canceled up to 15 days prior. Future cruise credits may be used through December 2022.

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