The ban on cruising in American territorial waters was lifted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in late October subject to strict conditions. But with COVID-19 rates still setting daily records and new safety protocols failing to keep passenger ships infection-free, it may take months before it’s safe to go back on the water again.
When the CDC implemented its no-sail order last March, few in the cruise industry thought their ships would be sitting idle for long. In fact, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced at the time that its member cruise lines had agreed to suspend operations on a worldwide basis for 30 days. Indeed, most cruise lines continued to sell cabins for ships departing later in 2020 and throughout 2021.
Now, some 10 months and thousands of cancelled sailings later, it is clear the industry under-estimated the severity of Covid-19 and was overly optimistic about how long it would take to make cruising safe again. In fact, recent attempts to show that cruising can be made safe with the introduction of a few new guidelines backfired when SeaDream Yacht Club and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) had to abort cruises in the Caribbean and Asia respectively because of Covid-19 outbreaks among passengers.
So, what will it take to make cruising safe again and how long will it take?
A few river boats and some smaller ocean-going ships began sailing again in Europe and Asia last summer. But most major cruise lines believe they won’t be able to begin sailing safely again until at least this spring, and even then, it will be on a limited basis. This timetable is based on how long it will take them to implement new health and safety protocols on their ships and to obtain certification to sail in U.S. waters from the CDC.
To be certified in the U.S., the CDC requires ships with over 250 persons to complete a multi-phase process that came into effect on November 1 and will last for a full year. The first phase requires all potential crew members on a ship to be lab-tested for Covid-19. The second phase is for ships to sail on simulated voyages with volunteer passengers so that their health, safety and operational procedures can be tested and refined.
When ships have successfully completed these two pre-sailing phases, they can submit their data and apply for certification to begin cruising. Once certified, ships will be granted “Green” status to resume sailing with passengers on a phased basis and with certain conditions, including being limited to voyages of seven days or fewer.
While requirements to resume voyages outside U.S. territorial waters are not as complex, most cruise lines are implementing the same rigorous health and safety procedures throughout their fleets regardless of where they are sailing.
These passenger safety measures may initially include proof of negative test for Covid-19 within 72 hours of sailing, another test upon boarding, visits ashore only in bubble excursions provided by the cruise line, restrictions on people who have previously traveled to destinations with high rates of infection, and requirements to wear a face mask in certain areas of the ship. Ships may also sail with reduced numbers of passengers and crew, visit fewer ports of call, and skip some destinations altogether. Later this year, some cruise lines may also start to require proof of Covid-19 vaccinations.
In order to reduce the risk of health issues at sea, some cruise lines have also announced new medical restrictions. For example, Cunard will no longer accept passengers with certain underlying medical conditions, including those who require supplementary oxygen, medical ventilatory support or dialysis. However, passengers who use CPAP machines overnight for sleep apnea will still be permitted to sail.
But regardless of the safety and medical protocols introduced, there may still be rough seas ahead for cruise lines that resume operations before a majority of the public has been vaccinated for Covid-19.
For example, after operating more than 20 cruises under rigorous health and safety protocols this past summer and fall in Norway without any Covid-19 cases, SeaDream Yacht Club relocated one of its ships to the Caribbean for a series of sailings from Barbados. On its inaugural cruise in early November, seven guests and two crew members tested positive for the virus aboard the SeaDream I, a small ship that carries just 112 guests and 95 crew.
The cruise, which was meant to show that cruise voyages could take place safely during the pandemic, was aborted and the rest of the season suspended. In a statement SeaDream said, “The company will now spend time to evaluate and see if it is possible to operate and have a high degree of certainty of not getting Covid.”
In December, RCCL aborted a cruise from Singapore on the Quantum of the Seas after an elderly passenger tested positive for Covid-19. That test turned out to be a false positive, but the reputational damage was already done.
The complexity surrounding the CDC’s requirements and the time it will take to implement their own safety protocols has caused most cruise lines to reduce the number of voyages they plan to operate in 2021 and to restart their cruising schedules in phases beginning this spring. For example, at this writing all Carnival and RCCL cruises in North America have been suspended until at least March, Seabourn and Silversea won’t start sailing again until at least mid-April, and Cunard and Windstar don’t plan to begin operations again until May. This restart schedule may be pushed back further if these safety measures are deemed insufficient to cope with the new Covid-19 variant, which is more infectious.
The loss of revenue over the past year and the significant cost of implementing new safety protocols has caused some cruise lines to scrap older ships, which means there will be fewer cruises to choose from when they do return.
For example, Carnival is selling 13 of its older ships and placing others in long-term layup. Royal Caribbean is scrapping or selling some ships including the Empress of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas. And several cruise lines have gone bankrupt since the outbreak of Covid-19, including Pullmantur of Spain, Blount Small Ships Adventures in the U.S., and Cruise and Maritime Voyages in the U.K.
In addition, Hong Kong-based Genting, the parent company of Crystal Cruises, stopped making payments to creditors last August.
Despite all these challenges and risks, a survey of Cruise Critic readers taken between April and June of last year revealed that 76% wanted to cruise again, and 50% of those who had booked were planning to sail in seven or so months. In contrast, only three percent said they wouldn’t cruise again.
But while many fans of cruising believe it will be safe to go back on the water soon, I’m not so sure. In fact, until I get my Covid-19 vaccine, I think I’ll stay in dry dock.
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