On March 14, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered ship operators to “not embark any new passengers or crew” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, 464 days would pass before a cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Celebrity Edge, sailed from an American port (Fort Lauderdale, Florida), upon the CDC’s lifting of the No Sail Order.
Despite this milestone and many sailings since then, the cruise industry may be forever changed. So, when you embark on your own comeback to cruising, be mindful of some of the likely long-term changes that are the new normal of cruising.
New to the check-in process is a document check for a negative COVID-19 PCR test that passengers must obtain within three days of sailing. Depending on your cruise line, departure port and the cities you’ll visit on your cruise, you may also have to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Guests age 11 and under will be required to take a COVID PCR test three days before departure and a second such test at the cruise terminal pier before boarding. (The second tests are administered at the port by a third party hired by the cruise line. Most cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean International, are covering the cost of this second test.)
Cruise lines have introduced a staggered boarding process to allow for distancing during these checks. To speed up this new check-in procedure, cruise lines, including Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, have added a section to their apps where you select a 30-minute arrival time slot when you check in online. There is also a health questionnaire on the app.
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises
Early in the pandemic, the cruise industry became infamous for superspreader events where COVID-19 traveled widely throughout the ship. To prevent a repeat, cruise lines have paid great attention to the air circulation systems on board their ships.
On Royal Caribbean cruises, 100 percent fresh ocean air is continuously supplied from outside the ship instead of the former system of some outside air mixed with recirculated air. This process, explain the folks at Royal Caribbean, “replaces the air in any space, with a total air change up to 12 times an hour in staterooms, and about 15 changes an hour in large public spaces.”
Other cruise lines are doing likewise—and more. For example, Princess Cruises has deployed MERV 13 filters that capture small airborne pathogens and, where possible, are including ultraviolet light treatment systems. According to the CDC, UV energy “kills airborne pathogens in the room where they are released.”
Based on an independent assessment conducted by the University of Nebraska Medical Center and National Strategic Research Institute, Celebrity Cruises confidently claims that the air protections in place aboard its ships make the transmission of aerosol particles between spaces (for example, between staterooms) extremely low to virtually impossible.
Ship operators have worked diligently to maintain everyone’s favorite activities while implementing new safety measures. Gyms, spas and entertainment productions will still be offered. The casinos will be open, as will youth activity centers, though with lower occupancy.
The most noticeable change on board will be masking requirements. As of press time, the latest policies of many cruise lines require all guests to wear a mask while indoors, including in elevators, retails shops and the casino. Princess Cruises also requires face coverings when boarding or exiting the ship, before being seated for dinner and in buffet lines.
Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises
Aside from emphasizing reservations and masks, many cruise lines have made great efforts so that guests feel minimal changes in the restaurants—yes, the beloved buffet dinner is still on the menu on most ships.
Princess Cruises confirms that guests will still enjoy the buffet, but the crew will serve the food at some stations. Certain items may be set out in single servings so that diners can take them without touching communal utensils. Royal Caribbean has established similar protocols for buffets. Additionally, seating configurations allow for physical distancing, and tables and chairs are disinfected frequently.
From staterooms to restaurants to the spa and beyond, the cruise industry has worked hard, in connection with the CDC and other health partners, to ensure a safe, comfortable experience for all guests. Considering that today’s cruises have fewer passengers on board to allow for more distancing, return cruisers might even enjoy the experience more than usual.