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As Covid Rages, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Could Drop Testing Rules

The major U.S. cruise lines still require pre-cruise covid tests. Signs suggest those rules could be loosened or even go away.

Covid has not gone away, but vaccines have limited its impact on cruise ships.

Royal Caribbean International (RCL) , Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) , Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) , and the rest of the cruise lines sailing out of U.S. ports require all passengers 12 and over to be vaccinated. In addition, all crew members must be vaccinated and all passengers must show a negative test taken no more than two days before their sailing.

These rules come from the cruise lines being part of a voluntary program through the Centers for Disease Control. Under this plan, the cruise lines have opted into voluntary oversight by the federal agency which now tracks cases onboard giving each ship a rating based on a green, yellow, orange, red color system.

Green means that there are no reported cases of covid onboard the ship.

And while "none" is a very high standard for ships carrying thousands of people, it's a standard many ships met going back to when the program began last summer. Now, however, as mask rules have been dropped and cruising has returned to normal once you board the ship, no ship sailing under the CDC program currently has green status,

Royal Caribbean Lead JS

Do the U.S. Cruise Lines Have a Problem?

While zero cases seems like an impossible threshold, as recently as mid-March, nearly 60 ships were green, Cruzely reported.

"Meanwhile, nearly 90 ships have orange status, meaning more than 0.3% of those onboard ships sailing with passengers (three people per thousand) have cases," the website reported. "All told, of the 94 ships currently tracked by the CDC, all are are either yellow or orange, indicating possible cases right now."

Being in orange status triggers a CDC investigation. The agency defined what the means on its website.

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CDC regularly reviews the number of reported cases and exposed close contacts for ships in “Orange” status. As needed, CDC may request additional information from the ship or discuss the situation with ship personnel or the cruise line’s corporate office. If warranted, CDC inspectors can conduct in-person inspections to verify that all public health interventions are being implemented as recommended to control onboard transmission.

The review of the orange status can lead to the same requirements the agency asks cruise lines to meet if a ship moves to red status.

  • Test all passengers mid-voyage, and/or prior to the end of the voyage, regardless of vaccination status
  • Increase the frequency of routine screening testing of crew;
  • Require mask use by all passengers and crew indoors and in crowded outdoor areas

During a review of orange status the CDC could opt to send personnel onboard and it could (but does not have to) impose any of the above conditions. And, even though nearly every ship sailing currently sits at orange status, the CDC has not imposed stricter rules for passengers on any Carnival, Royal Caribbean, or Norwegian ships. (The cruise lines have enacted stricter rules for crew members on some ships based on case numbers).

Could Cruise Lines Testing Requirements Go Away?

The fact that the CDC has not called for full-ship testing or made passengers wear masks on a single ship seems like an acknowledgement that covid has become manageable. Yes, people will get infected on ships, but vaccinated (and likely, but not required to be) boosted passengers may get covid, but it will generally be a mild case.

Covid, at least for cruise lines, appears to have moved from a pandemic to an endemic. It's something to monitor but it's also something that's a long-term fact of life, so you have to adjust rules accordingly.

Viking Cruises has dropped its pre-cruise testing requirement for its two ships sailing from the U.S. Carnival's P&O Cruises has dropped the requirement from some summer sailings (none from the U.S.)

That's hardly a trend, but it's likely a sign of things to come. Testing two days before a cruise does not guarantee that people won't bring covid onboard. It probably does lower the possibility for spread onboard, but with a highly-vaccinated population, that may not be all that important.

It's possible, maybe even likely, that the CDC eventually treats cruise lines like every other place in the U.S. that draws a crowd. That would mean sort of accepting that covid infections will happen but that they can be managed,