Just last week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they would end their cruise ship program for COVID-19. The program, established during the peak of the pandemic, kept track of COVID-19 cases on cruises and provided the public with a way to monitor the virus onboard cruise ships.
The CDC stated their decision to end the program was based on the ability of cruise lines to monitor and respond effectively to COVID cases on board their ships. It does seem that cruise lines have done a very good job of keeping cases low onboard, as there have been no major outbreaks of the virus reported on a cruise ship since before the cruising shutdown of 2020-2021.
Immediately following the termination of this program Virgin Voyages announced they would no longer require pre-cruise COVID testing. Virgin then implemented this on sailings beginning just two days later. While this quick move led the cruise industry on a whole back to a time before Virgin Voyages even existed (remember cruising without having to be tested beforehand?), other cruise lines were not as quick to remove their testing requirements.
I took my first post-shutdown cruise back in June 2021 onboard Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas. At that time the United States was not allowing cruise ships to sail from its ports, so Royal Caribbean Group, which also includes Celebrity Cruises, had moved two of their ships, Adventure of the Seas and Celebrity Millennium, to ports of embarkation in other countries. Adventure of the Seas sailed from Nassau, while Millennium sailed from Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten.
On these early cruises not only did you have to test negative for COVID-19 in order to board, but that test had to be a PCR test taken within 3 days of sailing. This strict requirement, arguably stricter than the altered requirement that soon followed of a rapid antigen test within 2 days of sailing, also came with the requirement of vaccination against COVID-19.
While testing protocols have changed multiple times during the pandemic, varying depending on the cruise line, length of cruise, and even embarkation port, the requirement that a large majority of passengers be vaccinated has not changed much at all. This has left many unvaccinated cruisers on dry land, even as the number of people going on cruises has rapidly increased during the summer of 2022.
On Thursday, July 28th, roughly a week after the CDC’s announcement of the end of their cruise ship program, more cruise lines announced alterations to their COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements.
Both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises have announced plans to discontinue testing requirements for vaccinated guests on cruises shorter than 6 nights. Meanwhile, they also included in their updated protocols testing requirements for unvaccinated guests on ALL cruises. This seems to indicate that not only have Royal and Celebrity relaxed testing requirements a bit but that they also may soon allow more unvaccinated guests to sail on their ships.
While other major lines such as Carnival, Norwegian, and Disney have still not announced any changes to their testing and vaccination requirements at the time of this writing, it is expected that we will hear from all of the lines shortly.
I think it is unreasonable to assume that lines will drop the testing requirement completely as Virgin did; I believe we will see the cruise lines develop protocols similar to Royal Caribbean, with testing requirements present on longer sailings where community spread of the virus is more likely. The new BA.5 variant has proven to be especially transmissive and is even thought to be able to overcome previous infections and vaccinations. Because of this, cruise lines will have a difficult time completely removing requirements and running the risk of large outbreaks of the virus on board their ships.
This brings up another question – what kind of public transparency will there be on the number of cases onboard cruise ships now that the lines are no longer reporting these to the CDC? I have sailed with Celebrity quite a few times this year and know that the Captains of Celebrity vessels were making announcements for transparency once 1% or greater of the guest population had tested positive for COVID-19. Will this still happen, or will cruise lines simply not reveal how many folks are testing positive for the virus on their cruises?
They technically do not have to do so any longer.