Mandatory Masks, Cancelled Ports, And More As Cruise Lines Scramble To Deal With Omicron
Royal Caribbean were dealt another blow to their winter season as 55 passengers aboard an eight day sailing on the Odyssey of the Seas.
It’s the latest in a number of cruise related outbreaks in December, prompting some heavy reshuffling of restrictions, and asking some serious questions about the immediate future of the industry. While no mass cancellations outside of South Africa have been announced, the trajectory of Omicron makes navigating the next few months complex.
Unfortunately for Royal Caribbean, they’ve been at the center of the most significant instances. Just last week, their ship Symphony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, experienced a similar fate when over 40 passengers tested positive mid cruise.
Other cruise lines, like Carnival and Cunard have also had outbreaks, prompting port closures, early disembarking, and pre-port testing on certain sailings.
It should be noted that vaccination rates in all of the affected cruises were above 90%, and have been predominantly mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic cases. Although the numbers may seem alarming at face value, 50 infected passengers or crew-members on a ship of over 5000 is less than 1%.
Still, carriers are scrambling to safeguard the cruise experience as Omicron proves to be an increasingly infectious variant of the COVID-19 virus. Lines will need to balance safety with passenger satisfaction – a tough feat considering many passengers have chosen cruises because of their perceived safety and on-board freedom.
Royal Caribbean has already changed its policy on masks, requiring all passengers, vaccinated or not, to wear them indoors unless eating or drinking. Carnival hasn’t completely changed its policy, but has modified its verbiage from “encouraging” to “requesting” passengers to wear masks indoors. They have also banned smoking in casinos until further notice, as passengers would have to remove their masks to have a cigarette.
Norwegian also made a similar decision to forgo the exception on masks for vaccinated passengers, meaning everyone must now wear them indoors.
Disney Cruises and Celebrity Cruises have already made plans to require passengers as young as 5 to be fully vaccinated. No other lines have made this move, but others are anticipated to follow suite, especially if Omicron cases continue to rise.
Cruise passengers should go into sailings with the expectation that things could change at any moment. Ports of call can close with little or no notice based on their own infection rates, and a sudden outbreak on a ship could mean a week at sea or early returns.
No cruise lines are requiring booster shots yet, although some do recommend it. It’s possible that the CDC may adapt the definition of fully vaccinated to include at least one booster, but until that point, passengers should follow the current guidelines.
Cruise lines took center stage at the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago as several ships inadvertently became confined examples of the effect the virus could have. The British ship, Diamond Princess, was quarantined in port at Yokohama, Japan for a month as a massive outbreak swept the ship. Off the more than 3000 passengers aboard, 700 tested positive with nine dying of COVID-19.
What followed was chaos across the industry. Countries closed ports, employees were left isolated in ships for months unable to be repatriated, and eventually the entire sector ground to a halt.
Upon its return, cruising was touted as the safest way to enjoy a vacation. Mandatory vaccinations, testing before, during, and after the sailing, and a closed community meant that passengers could enjoy a vacation free from many of the restrictions experienced in hotel based trips.
To help ease passengers concerns, most cruise lines are still offering flexible cancellation. With this in mind, customers who aren’t bothered by the new restrictions don’t have to worry too much about the financial ramifications of a cancelled cruise
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