Carnival tightens COVID-19 policies amid delta variant concerns
Passengers sailing with Carnival Cruise Line will now be required to wear masks onboard and present negative pre-cruise test results, regardless of vaccine status, the line announced Wednesday.
Beginning Aug. 7, cruisers 2 and older will have to mask up, and from Aug. 14, they will have to show negative PCR or antigen test results, received no more than three days prior to sailing, in order to embark. The mandates will remain in effect through Oct. 31, 2021.
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"Carnival will continue to operate with vaccinated cruises as defined by the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)], including having its crew fully vaccinated," the line said in a statement. "However, in an abundance of caution, and following the lead of similar sectors and venues -- including Nevada casinos, Disney theme parks and Broadway theaters -- all guests will be asked to wear masks in certain indoor areas of Carnival's ships."
Those areas include small spaces like elevators, any place where large numbers of passengers might congregate and venues (kids clubs, onboard Build-A-Bear Workshops, Family Harbor, Sky Zone) that frequently cater to children younger than 12. Additional areas where masks are required will be designated by signage.
I'm currently onboard the first revenue sailing of Carnival Cruise Line's brand-new 5,282-passenger ship, Mardi Gras. This is my fourth cruise since ships began allowing U.S. passengers onboard in May, so I thought I was prepared for how things would operate onboard.
Instead, what I found was a mega-ship at 70% capacity with no testing or mask-wearing requirements, no social distancing and self-serve buffets. It feels the most "normal" of any of the four voyages I've done since the pandemic began. Although it doesn't feel unsafe, it does feel a bit unsettling for me, as someone who is now used to more strict onboard requirements and capacities that topped out at just 25% on the other three vessels.
I'm unsure if it's related to first-cruise hiccups -- the ship didn't have a shakedown sailing -- but on the first two nights, waits to be seated for dinner were upward of 90 minutes, and crowds gathered outside as people stood in line. Entertainment venues, such as the theater and Punchliner comedy club, seem to be on the small side, which means three show times are needed to accommodate everyone onboard, and they have all consistently been standing-room-only with few, if any, seats blocked off. Elevators have also been packed.
It's key to note that the ship is sailing fully vaccinated (a minimum of 95% vaccinated passengers, according to CDC recommendations), and Carnival's vessels will continue to ensure that level of inoculation across the board.
The 5% allowance for unvaccinated passengers is aimed at children younger than 12 who can't be vaccinated, as well as adults who are unable to be vaccinated and who apply for and receive exemptions through the line. For those cruisers, the regulations remain the same -- pre-cruise negative PCR results no more than three days old and antigen testing, both at the port on embarkation day and again onboard 24 hours after the sailing begins (on voyages of four days or longer). Unvaccinated passengers are charged $150 to cover their testing costs.
The line has taken some other precautions -- frequent cleaning, extra hand-sanitizer machines, limiting of high-touch items (throw pillows, daily printed schedules, etc.) in cabins and checking of vaccine status prior to entering small public areas like the piano bar and arcade -- but overall, the breezy attitude with which the voyage has been operating has been jarring for me.
Thankfully, just as I was debating how best to compare the experience to others I've had recently, Carnival made the announcement.
"These new requirements are being implemented to protect our guests and crew while on board, and to continue to provide confidence to our homeports and destinations that we are doing our part to support their efforts to protect public health and safety," said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. "We expect these requirements will be temporary and appreciate the cooperation of our guests. Our first month of guest operations has been met with tremendous enthusiasm and very positive guest feedback, and we are committed to continue our restart with both fun and safety in mind."
Carnival Brand Ambassador John Heald discussed the changes during a live Facebook broadcast from onboard Mardi Gras.
"It's an ever-changing situation, and things, of course, are always going to be -- like the roller coaster here on the ship -- up and down. The good news ... is that cruising is back, and thousands of people have already had a great time and are currently having a great time here on this ship...."
"But, in line with other major corporations -- such as Disney, Mc Donald's and Las Vegas and all the other places -- we have to be careful, and we have to get this right, and we will continue to make whatever changes we need to in order for the fun to continue."
Unsurprisingly, the news was met with some gripes from prospective passengers, but the comments were largely supportive of the decision.
Given the rise in COVID-19 cases related to the delta variant, this seems like a logical step, particularly since the CDC recently recommended everyone -- including those who are vaccinated -- start wearing masks in public indoor areas again. It is also in line with what we've been seeing from other cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, which has expanded its coronavirus testing requirements.