After more than a year of an industry-wide shutdown, Royal Caribbean is ready to set sail again. The cruise company just received clearance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct "mock cruises" with volunteer passengers, starting in June.
The first mock cruise will depart from Miami on June 20, and all passengers ages 16 and up must be fully vaccinated. Starting on Aug. 1, all passengers ages 12 and up will need to be fully vaccinated, according to the company's website.
The CDC announced in May that it will let companies avoid testing passengers and staff if they can confirm that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The CDC also said at the time that it would review and respond to applications from cruise lines for mock cruises.
Every cruise line makes its own policies, though. Norwegian Cruise Lines, for example, will require that 100 percent of passengers and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19. Virgin Voyages also requires 100 percent vaccination rates.
If you're interested in taking a cruise, it's understandable to have questions about what has changed since the pandemic started. Here's what you need to know.
Is going on a cruise safe right now?
Cruise ships were linked to several COVID-19 outbreaks at the beginning of the pandemic. In February 2020, the cruise ship Diamond Princess was forced to dock in Japan and quarantine passengers and staff due to a COVID-19 outbreak on board. By Feb. 23, there were 691 confirmed cases of the virus on the ship.
In March, the MS Artania was forced to dock in Australia and quarantine passengers after several people on the ship tested positive for COVID-19.
The CDC still recommends that people don't take cruises, noting that "the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high, since the virus appears to spread more easily among people in close quarters aboard ships."
There are factors about cruises that make COVID-19 safety difficult, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. "Social distancing is difficult on a cruise," he says. "People are in a confined space, and the risk of transmission of COVID-19 if someone is infected is high." But, he adds, the risk, if you're vaccinated, is "very low."
Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. He tells Yahoo Life that cruises "can be done safely with a combination of testing and vaccination." In fact, he has booked a cruise this summer.
Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life that he is also planning to go on a cruise this summer with a 100 percent vaccination requirement. "I think it's safe to go on a cruise right now if everyone is vaccinated and if the cruise ship puts all the appropriate public health measures in place," he says.
Still, Dr. Lewis Nelson, professor and chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service in the emergency department at University Hospital, tells Yahoo Life that a cruise is "not risk-free." He adds, "The risk on a public health scale is a bit more controversial, given the increased risk of infection spread at home upon return where exposure to a non-immunized or immunocompromised community may occur."
What precautions should you take?
Experts agree that the best precaution you can take is to get vaccinated against COVID-19. "Don't go if you aren't fully vaccinated," Watkins says. While things like good hand hygiene are important under any circumstances, if you and most — or all —of your fellow passengers are fully vaccinated, your risk of contracting COVID-19 should be minimal.
Russo says that it's important to bring a mask with you too. "The fly in the ointment is shore excursions on the cruises," he says. "You're going to get out and interact with people who are not vaccinated, so you should still bring masks." Russo says that it's not that you're not protected against contracting a serious case of COVID-19, but there is a small risk that you could get an asymptomatic or mild infection. "You don't want to land in cruise ship quarantine," he says. "Mask up off the boat, for sure."
Which businesses are approaching this the right way?
Cruise lines that require 100 percent vaccination will be the safest, Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "The most critical aspect of cruises will be the proportion of people on the cruise who are fully vaccinated," he says. "The chance of an outbreak of COVID-19 on a cruise goes down significantly if all cruise-goers are fully vaccinated."
However, Adalja says, those that require high vaccination rates and testing leading up to departure can be considered safe as well.
Watkins recommends choosing a cruise line that requires you to show proof of vaccination to make sure people who say they're vaccinated actually are, in fact, inoculated. But Nelson points out that proving vaccination status can be tricky. "There are political and logistical challenges to requiring vaccination, but the industry should be able to set its safety requirements," he says.
Should families be taking their kids on cruises if they aren't vaccinated?
Some cruise ships won't allow it. Virgin is an adults-only cruise line, so it's not even a potential factor, but Norwegian won't allow younger children aboard as a default, given that COVID-19 vaccines aren't authorized for use in kids under the age of 12.
As for other cruise lines, "it's going to be a risk-tolerance issue," Adalja says. But, he says, "with aggressive testing, you can limit the spread of COVID-19, even if you have an unvaccinated child on board. The cruise ship can become a bubble pretty quickly."
Kulkarni points out that, in children under 12, "bad outcomes from COVID-19 are very uncommon. On the other hand, kids can acquire COVID-19 and can transmit the virus to others. The overall proportion of fully vaccinated individuals who will be on the cruise is important, as are rates of general SARS-CoV-2 circulation at the time of the cruise."
What do people going on cruises need to know to stay safe?
"Get vaccinated," Adalja says. "That's basically the only thing."
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