Cruise lines navigate complex rules as Alaska crossings resume from Seattle
It’s a sight Seattle hasn’t seen in a while: queues of vacationers at Pier 91, many dressed in Hawaiian shirts, bobs and sunglasses, with suitcases and smiles. The Majestic Princess floats to their left, the Serenade of the Seas to the right.
Under sunny skies, the season’s first cruise to Alaska – and the first since the start of the pandemic – set sail on Monday as Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas departed on a seven-night trip.
Cruise’s long-awaited return to Seattle continues this month as six other cruise lines resume operations, including Seattle-based Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. Starting Friday, ships will leave Seattle almost daily for the remainder of the month. In August, some days will see two departures.
“We have now been waiting for two years to go to Alaska,” said Peter Dorney, 52, one of the first people to line up with his wife, Kathy, 51, while waiting to board the Serenade on Monday morning. . The Massachusetts couple are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and Dorney said they’ve been on more than 20 cruises. “We are frequent cruisers.”
But Monday’s resumption also highlights the complexities of cruising through the current stage of the global pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking cruise lines to decide whether they will require 95% of a ship’s passengers to be vaccinated, which will qualify them as a “vaccinated cruise.” Based on this decision, there are guidelines for mask use, social distancing, and testing.
Royal Caribbean has chosen not to meet the 95% threshold for Serenade of the Seas crossings. This does not mean that the guests are not vaccinated; in fact, anyone eligible for a vaccine must have received one.
The nuance in Royal Caribbean’s decision lies in the cruise line’s decision to accept unvaccinated children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine in the United States. Few other ships allow the embarkation of unvaccinated children.
For a trip to be considered a “vaccinated cruise,” the CDC requires that 95% of passengers and also 95% of the crew be fully vaccinated 14 days before boarding.
On these cruises, fully vaccinated passengers do not need to wear masks anywhere. They don’t need to maintain social distancing. There is no requirement for testing.
The CDC also says crew members who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. However, most cruise lines leaving Seattle require crew members to wear them, at least for initial trips.
“You sort of have collective immunity on board,” said Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line. “On board, it’s like a bubble.
The alternative, or the decision not to require a high vaccination rate for passengers and crew, requires all guests and crew to wear masks indoors, except in designated “vaccinated areas” , where only vaccinated guests are allowed.
Most of the ships leaving Seattle continue on the “vaccinated cruise” route. This includes Holland America’s NieuwAmsterdam, the majestic princess of Princess Cruises and the carnival miracle.
Although the Serenade of the Seas does not cross the 95% vaccination threshold, the cruise line still requires passengers 16 years of age and older to be vaccinated. In August, it will require vaccines for passengers 12 and older. All crew members are fully vaccinated.
Jay Schneider, director of product innovation at Royal Caribbean Group, said the decision to allow unvaccinated children on board – thus preventing the ship from reaching the 95% immunization threshold – was largely taken to maintain the brand’s focus on family travel.
Royal Caribbean still simulates the ‘vaccinated cruise’ experience in many areas of the ship, especially those where children are not otherwise allowed. This includes the casino, specific dining rooms, pubs, lounges, and certain events where patrons can stay maskless inside.
For Princess Cruises, it was “absolutely tortured” to decide not to allow unvaccinated children on board, said Lisa Syme, vice president of Princess who has worked at the company for 38 years. Especially considering the cruise line’s efforts over the past few years to be a family-oriented brand, “this has been heartbreaking for us.”
For unvaccinated passengers, some previous precautions instituted during the pandemic remain.
They must be tested for the coronavirus in port before boarding the ship. For trips longer than four days, they must be retested upon return prior to disembarking, per CDC guidelines.
Royal Caribbean will place unvaccinated passengers on specific shore excursions when exploring destinations. Holland America requires unvaccinated passengers – who will not be children, but rather people with medical exceptions – to do the same and wear a mask almost all the time inside the ship, except when eating.
Bhupesh Singh, 44, who was aboard the Serenade of the Seas on Monday with his wife, Hansi, and their two unvaccinated children – both under the age of 12 – said he felt comfortable with approach to Royal Caribbean, even with the extra precautions it would have to take when traveling with children. He noted that he took his family on a cruise from Seattle, where Royal Caribbean at least requires all adults to be vaccinated. In Florida, where it comes from, it is not.
The reduced capacity aboard the Serenade of the Seas was also encouraging for Singh. Royal Caribbean declined to say exactly how many passengers it will have on board, but said it would be “much less” than full capacity, which is typically around 2,500. Holland America and Princess Cruises have said they will start their Alaska cruises at around 60% capacity, gradually increasing over the season.
Some cruise lines will also use technology to locate passengers. Royal Caribbean will use “wristbands” or bracelets that passengers must wear to be tracked on board. Princess Cruises will use lockets, portable devices used for various functions aboard the ship, which will keep a log of who the passengers come into contact with.
Physically, cruise lines claim that the layout of the ships remains almost identical to what passengers are used to. Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas will space the dining tables and casino machines. Holland America and Princess Cruises have said their companies have no plans to make such changes.
All cruise lines claim to have made significant improvements to their HVAC systems, investing heavily in air filtration systems that bring in fresh air and do not recirculate the air on the ship. And they’re touting their new cleaning protocols, which they say are more thorough and hygienic than ever before.
Cruise lines should consider the delta variant, Janet said base player, professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. The variant is more contagious than its predecessors and has again increased coronavirus infections nationwide, increasing the chances that a passenger could contract the delta variant. The risk is also likely to increase if cruise ships have older passengers on board.
Baseman added that cruise ships had “a known history of infectious disease outbreaks” even before the coronavirus pandemic, given that a fixed group of people mix closely with each other.
Despite his concerns, Baseman said the plans outlined by the cruises departing from Seattle – with their required high vaccination rates – were consistent with plans to reopen the rest of the United States. “It’s hard for me to think of what more they could do. “
She said that if she found herself in an environment where she knew for sure that at least 95% of people around her were fully vaccinated, she would feel comfortable removing her mask indoors, as long as ‘she had no symptoms.
Regardless of cruise line policy, “people should be aware of themselves and they should take their own precautions,” Singh said.
When asked if he’s worried about the delta variant, Dorney said, “That’s going to be what it is… just take whatever precautions you can take and then, you know, live your life.”