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Sea changes: A preview of the new COVID-related cruise restrictions

Sept. 27, 2020
7 min read
Mariner of the Seas
Sea changes: A preview of the new COVID-related cruise restrictions
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Are you the kind of cruiser who loves roaming on your own during port calls? You may not like a new rule that appears to be in the works at many cruise lines.

Health experts advising some of the world's biggest cruise brands on how to restart cruising unveiled recommendations this week that included a call to significantly restrict passenger movements during port stops.

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The Healthy Sail Panel, which was created by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, suggested that passengers only be allowed off ships on supervised, cruise-line-sold shore tours.

Royal Caribbean Group is the parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea. Norwegian Cruise Line is the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises.

"During the initial return to sailing, cruise operators should only allow guests debarking from a ship at a destination port to participate in cruise line-sponsored or verified excursions as a way of limiting potential exposures in the destinations they visit," the panel said in a 66-page report.

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Independence of the Seas
Royal Caribbean, the world's biggest cruise line by passenger capacity, has yet to resume a single sailing since the coronavirus shutdown began in March. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

The recommendation was one of 74 that the panel presented to the cruise companies and to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC currently has a "no-sail" order in place for cruise ships operating in U.S. waters.

The main trade group for the cruise industry, the Cruise Lines International Association, this week also released guidelines for a healthy restart to cruising that included a ban on passengers roaming ports on their own. The association said the rule would be mandatory for ships operated by its member lines on itineraries subject to CDC regulation.

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Several lines that recently restarted limited cruising in the Mediterranean already have implemented such a rule.

Such a restriction isn't sitting well with some cruisers. An extended conversation on the topic this week at a leading Carnival fan page on Facebook, the Carnival Cruisers Opinion Page, has drawn hundreds of negative comments (as well as quite a few positive ones).

"What’s the point in cruising if we can’t get off the ship in port?" wrote one of the page's members, summing up a sentiment expressed by many.

There have been similar comments in recent days at many other cruise fan pages on Facebook and at cruise fan site message boards, where the topic has been a hot one.

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Cruise line executives say they understand that not all their customers will be thrilled with limitations on port visits and other new covid-related rules.

In an exclusive interview with The Points Guy earlier this week, Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said the company had done extensive research in recent months on what its customers thought about possible new health protocols on ships and other aspects of a return to cruising.

"I think we've kind of concluded that the loyalists, people who love to cruise, (who) know cruising ... are more willing to accept protocols (and) changes to the experience," Bayley said.

First-time cruisers "are far more hesitant (to book under such circumstances) because they already don't understand the experience," he added.

But Bayley said even the cruising loyalists are expecting the new anti-COVID protocols to drop away over time.

Related: Here's how to cancel or postpone a cruise due to coronavirus

Bayley said it was hard to say how long the new protocols would remain in place. It depends in large part on the progression of the virus and a vaccine. But he confirmed that Royal Caribbean would not allow passengers to roam in ports on their own when the line resumes cruising.

"We will start with highly controlled shore excursions," he said.

The touring rule is just one of many that cruisers are likely to see when cruising resumes in North America. The Healthy Sail Panel also called for:

  • Passengers to be tested for COVID-19 between five days and 24 hours before sailing. Those testing positive would not be allowed to cruise.
  • Passengers to wear cloth face coverings or masks on ships in accordance with CDC recommendations.
  • Cruise lines to only allow indoor excursions during port stops if physical distancing, use of masks and other recommended protective measures can be implemented.
  • Cruise lines to modify onboard facilities so passengers can remain socially distanced in accordance with CDC recommendations (at least six feet separation).
  • Daily temperature checks for all passengers.

All of these are things that some would-be cruisers may find onerous.

In addition, the panel recommended that, in the startup phase of a return to cruising, cruise lines keep their itineraries as simple as possible, using private, cruise line-owned and operated destinations or ports where there can be tight control of the onshore experience.

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The panel also said cruise operators should initially return to service with shorter length trips.

Such recommendations, if adopted, could mean that some longer sailings currently on the books for later this year or early 2021 will be modified or canceled -- something not all cruisers will be happy to hear.

The Healthy Sail Panel was led by former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary and Utah governor Mike Leavitt.

Other panelists included former CDC head Julie Gerberding, former acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Stephen Ostroff, and Cornell University School of Hotel Administration Dean Kate Walsh.

Cruising has resumed in a very limited way in parts of Europe and a few regions of the world including French Polynesia. But cruises out of U.S. ports remain on hold for now due to the CDC's “no-sail” order.

The order is set to expire on Sept. 30. It’s unclear for now whether it will be extended.

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Featured image by ROYAL CARIBBEAN