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How many cruisers are testing positive for COVID-19 on ships? Royal Caribbean's CEO breaks it down

Aug. 17, 2021
6 min read
How many cruisers are testing positive for COVID-19 on ships? Royal Caribbean's CEO breaks it down
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Yes, some cruisers are testing positive for COVID-19 on ships. But the numbers are quite small -- on average, just one or two passengers a week on vessels sailing with more than 1,000 people.

That's the word today from Michael Bayley, the CEO of Royal Caribbean, the world's largest cruise line.

In an extraordinarily candid Facebook post that addressed the current situation with COVID-19 on cruise vessels, Bayley said the line was seeing about one to two passengers test positive for the illness on a typical sailing.

Bayley noted that the positive cases are popping up on ships despite the fact that the line is requiring passengers ages 2 and older to be tested for COVID-19 in advance of boarding.

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"How is that possible? Testing captures status at a point of time, and if the guest is incubating infection, then the [pre-cruise] test will miss it," Bayley noted.

Bayley said the passengers testing positive for COVID-19 on ships include passengers vaccinated for COVID-19. Such passengers typically are asymptomatic, he said.

Royal Caribbean is requiring passengers over the age of 12 on most sailings to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and Bayley said the line's ships have been sailing with 90% to 97% of passengers vaccinated for the illness.

"The overall majority of the unvaccinated guests are the kids not eligible for [the] vaccine," Bayley said.

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All crew on Royal Caribbean ships are fully vaccinated. Bayley said some of them are testing positive for COVID-19, too, but very infrequently.

Bayley said the line typically records one or two positive cases among crew every week out of thousands of crew members on its ships.

Royal Caribbean currently is operating 12 of its 26 vessels as it slowly ramps up operations. Like all major cruise lines around the world, the line halted all departures in March 2020 after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic and didn't restart operations for many months.

Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean

Until recently, Royal Caribbean had been testing all crew for COVID-19 every two weeks. But the line just changed its testing cycle for crew members to once per week due to the spread of the delta variant.

Bayley said many of the positive cases among crew members are detected during the quarantine period they must undergo after they first join a ship for work duty.

He also noted that the required testing of passengers for COVID-19 that's taking place in advance of boarding is catching anywhere from two to 10 positive cases a week. That's out of many thousands of passengers boarding the line's dozen active ships.

Related: The 6 classes of Royal Caribbean ships, explained

Passengers who test positive for COVID-19 in advance of boarding are not allowed to board.

When passengers test positive for COVID-19 while on a ship, the line immediately quarantines them and tests everyone in their traveling party, Bayley said. The line also does contract tracing for the passenger and tests all other close contacts.

If any of these additional passengers test positive for COVID-19, they also are quarantined.

In most cases, passengers who test positive are transported home from the ship on a private jet organized by the line, Bayley added.

Bayley is the first cruise line CEO to offer such a detailed overview of how many passengers and crew are testing positive for COVID-19 on ships. Some other big cruise operators, including Carnival Cruise Line, have been far more cagey about how many passengers are testing positive for COVID-19 on vessels.

Bayley suggested that transparency on the issue of COVID-19 on cruise ships could only help get the word out that cruising right now is a safe form of travel.

"Maybe this is too much information," he said of his Facebook post. But "having a community of people vaccinated at 90% to 97%, with frequent testing for all, is literally one of the safest places on the planet."

Bayley said passenger satisfaction scores for the ships the line is operating were "super high."

Royal Caribbean accounts for nearly one out of every five cruises taken worldwide and is considered a bellwether for the industry. If the line is having success keeping COVID-19 at bay on ships, other brands that are taking similar preventative measures likely are, too.

In his Facebook post, Bayley also addressed a COVID-19-related issue that is making it hard for Canadians to sign up for cruises out of U.S. ports right now.

In Canada, it has been common for citizens to get "mixed" vaccine doses -- that is, a Canadian might be given a combination of a Pfizer vaccine dose and a Moderna vaccine dose to become fully vaccinated. Canadian health officials have deemed such mixing of vaccine brands safe and effective. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not allowing people with mixed vaccine doses to cruise in U.S. waters right now. The result is that some Canadians are not being allowed to travel to cruise ships.

"There does continue to be many changes or points of confusion [concerning vaccine rules], such as Canadian mixed vaccines, which is perfectly acceptable in Canada yet not accepted by the CDC, and the home port [from which] we sail ... determines which authority decides," Bayley said. "However, we continue to work with multiple authorities to find safe solutions."

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Featured image by (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International)
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