Booking a cruise vacation used to be a simple and enjoyable process – decide where you want to travel, find a reasonably priced cruise with an interesting itinerary, and get ready for a carefree holiday. But indecisive bureaucrats and cruise executives have turned that simplicity into a wacky world of confusing and changing COVID-19 policies that only a forensic accountant could decipher.
You may need to show proof of vaccination to take a cruise, but then again you may not. Depending on which vaccine you received, you may or may not be allowed on board, depending on which countries the ship is sailing to or from. If you live in Europe, you currently can’t take a cruise from or to the U.S., but Americans may be able to cruise to your country. If you are allowed on board, you may have to wear a face covering and wrist band, or maybe not. And all these policies could change next week.
If it sounds like the cruise industry is struggling to come up with a coherent standard of health protocols that isn’t confusing, it’s because they are. And Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) is a good example.
When NCL first announced it would restart Caribbean cruises from Florida this summer, it wanted to require all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated. But in May, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that prohibited all businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or post-infection recovery, subject to a fine not exceeding $5,000 per violation. Some cruise lines also sail from Texas, which has a similar law that prevents the use of vaccine passports.
So, NCL announced that it would ask passengers to voluntarily provide proof of vaccination, and those who refused to do so would be assigned cabins in a designated part of the ship, and be required to wear face masks in public areas, and red wrist bands at all times. In addition, unvaccinated guests would require several tests for COVID at their own expense while on board, and might not be allowed to go ashore in various ports of call depending on local requirements.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) introduced a similar policy starting with its first Caribbean cruise in July on the Freedom of the Seas, which sailed from Miami. Vaccinated passengers had to wear wristbands, while the unvaccinated had a hole punched in their room card which was required to get into lounges, shows and restaurants. The same was true with its sister cruise line, Celebrity.
“Since the majority of our guests will be vaccinated, there will be venues and events restricted to vaccinated guests only,” the cruise line said in a letter to guests at the time. “We’ll do our best to create opportunities for all guests to enjoy their time with us.”
This nightmare of a solution was fraught with problems, so NCL asked a Florida court to grant an injunction against the ban on requiring proof of vaccination. U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams issued a preliminary injunction on August 8 against Florida’s ban as it applies to NCL, ruling the cruise line can require vaccination proof as the case moves forward because it’s likely they’ll ultimately succeed.
“Amid myriad, rapidly-changing requirements regarding quarantining and testing, there is one constant that facilitates cruise line customers’ access to advertised ports of call: documentary proof of vaccination will expedite passengers’ entry into virtually every single country and port where Plaintiffs intend to sail,” Williams ruled, adding if Norwegian doesn’t ask for proof of vaccination, “it will impede the ability of Plaintiffs to manage the business of vessels at foreign and interstate ports and lead to incalculable and unpredictable delays in travel.”
Governor DeSantis has appealed the ruling.
Now if you thought this decision might restore some uniformity with respect to COVID protocols at sea, you’d be wrong. As of this writing, it is still not mandatory for passengers of RCCL and Carnival to show proof of vaccination for any sailing from U.S. ports like Florida or Texas, although this too will soon change. And if you are allowed to sail unvaccinated, you may be required to buy medical insurance.
But, if your ship departing U.S. waters will visit other countries, you may need a vaccine after all. For example, effective September 3, 2021, cruise lines calling on any Bahamian port must be able to confirm that all guests 12 and older are fully vaccinated, with exemptions only for those with a medical condition that prohibits vaccination. And visitors will be required to obtain a negative COVID-19 test (either a Rapid Antigen Test or PCR), taken no more than five days before their arrival. Many other Caribbean islands have implemented similar protocols.
Furthermore, for ships departing U.S. waters, all the major cruise lines require both doses of a vaccine to be the same type, and if different, they will only accept mixing of mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna). According to the Carnival website, “Canadian or other international guests who received a combination of AstraZeneca and Pfizer are considered unvaccinated by the CDC.”
But, that definition of fully vaccinated is just for ships departing the U.S. If you are departing from another country, you may be considered fully vaccinated after all.
For example, for cruises departing outside U.S. waters, most cruise lines will accept passengers who are vaccinated with a mixed regimen of two shots from Pfizer and Moderna, or AstraZeneca with either Pfizer or Moderna. However, mixed vaccines may not be accepted at all ports of call. According to RCCL, “Guests who are vaccinated with a mixed series may not be allowed to go ashore at these ports, or may need to undergo additional testing if they wish to go ashore.”
But if you live in a country on the no-travel to the U.S. list (which is updated monthly), you won’t be able to take a cruise to or from U.S. waters until at least September 21, even if you have both doses of the right vaccines. However, you may be able to sail with the same American-owned cruise lines elsewhere in the world, including certain countries in Europe.
If this isn’t already confusing enough, it doesn’t stop here.
As recently reported in the New York Times, one passenger and 26 crew members aboard the Carnival Vista that sailed from Galveston, Texas in early August tested positive for COVID-19 and the passenger later died. According to the paper, it was the highest number of cases aboard a ship reported since June, when cruises restarted in the Caribbean and United States, and the first death.
While the Vista sailed out of Texas, which has banned businesses from requiring vaccinations since late July, more than 96 per cent of passengers were vaccinated and all but one crew member was fully vaccinated. This has prompted Carnival to suddenly change its policy, and the cruise line will begin requiring proof of vaccination from all eligible passengers over 12 starting August 28.
But despite the differences among cruise lines with respect to COVID policies, there is universal alignment among industry leaders and passengers with respect to the value of vaccines. For example, according to Bloomberg, the Chairmen of both RCCL (Richard Fain) and Carnival Cruises (Micky Arison) have said they’d prefer that all guests get the jab—adding that surveys show that more than 90 per cent of the line’s customers are vaccinated. Furthermore, a recent survey of 5,000 readers of Cruise Critic found that “a whopping 80 per cent of respondents would prefer to sail on a cruise ship with a vaccine requirement.”
As for my wife Gail and me, while we are scheduled to sail with NCL on a seven-day Caribbean cruise from Miami in December, like many Canadians who received a mixed dose of AstraZeneca and Pfizer, we currently don’t quality as fully vaccinated. However, in this wacky world of COVID cruising, all the rules could change again next week.
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