The cruise industry gets a raw deal from the media which has lazily advanced the "floating Petri dish" narrative. Yes, there have been a few instances of widespread illness spreading on a cruise ship, which makes for striking visuals and feverish media coverage.
In reality, the big cruise lines -- Royal Caribbean International (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) - Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report -- invested heavily in passenger health well before the pandemic. Ships have always been in a near-constant state of being cleaned while handwashing was heavily emphasized long before covid.
When you walk into a cruise buffet, you are met with rows of handwashing stations along with a crew member telling you (often in song) to wash your hands. Once the pandemic hit, all three major cruise lines stepped up their cleaning and disinfection efforts working with medical panels to determine how to make cruising as safe as possible.
And, while the cruise lines were aggressive in their own safety efforts, they also had to deal with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That agency kept the industry fully shut down from U.S. ports from March 2020 through July 2021. When the federal agency allowed cruises to return, they were heavily regulated, sailed with limited capacities, and required all crew as well as all passengers 12 or over to not only be vaccinated, but to provide a negative covid test result taken no more than two days before their sailing.
Despite all of those precautions questions remain as to whether it's safe to take a cruise.
What Is it Like on a Cruise Right Now?
Covid has not gone away. It continues to spread and you can get it at the supermarket, at a concert, at a sporting event, at a theme park, on a cruise, or well, anyplace you come into contact with other people. The difference is that if you get covid someplace where you go for a while and then leave, you don't actually know where you caught it.
I've taken eight cruises since the July restart. The protocols have changed since the first one, but here's where they currently stand:
- All crew must be vaccinated.
- All passengers ages 12 and over must be fully vaccinated.
- All passengers must present a negative covid test result taken no more than two days before the sailing.
Masks are no longer required for passengers, but crew members still wear them. Capacity has steadily increased since my first cruise back in July with passenger loads being close to full capacity on my most recent (May 13-16) weekend cruise on Freedom of the Seas.
With nearly every person onboard both vaccinated and tested, I've honestly felt safer at sea than I do visiting my local supermarket (where few people wear masks, and many are likely not vaccinated). The same could also be said for my covid era visits to Disney World, trips to Las Vegas, and a couple of live, sold out (albeit open air) sporting events.
That does not mean there's no risk. I have never caught covid, but I do have friends who caught it onboard (all experiencing mild symptoms).
Is it Safe to Take a Cruise Right Now?
My personal opinion is that it's safer to be in a closed environment with vaccinated people than living everyday with many people not being vaccinated. That opinion has been backed up by the CDC's actions. The federal agency has now eliminated its pandemic-related Cruise Travel Health Notices for cruise passengers and has also eliminated all risk warnings.
The agency does still offer the following guidance:
"The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships. If the virus is spreading on board a cruise ship, passengers and crew are at risk for infection, even if they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines."
All three major cruise lines have procedures to quarantine passengers who show signs of covid or test positive. Those actions have limited outbreaks on ships. with no crew members for Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or Norwegian being hospitalized due to covid.
As long as covid exists, being around people comes with risk. Cruise lines, however, have taken significant measures to control those risks and limit spread. That makes taking a cruise a viable, safe option for healthy people.