Published on : Monday, January 24, 2022
Cruise ships turning around mid-voyage. People placed in quarantine cabins on board. Voyages abruptly cancelled.
Crew members trying to appease unhappy customers.
It all feels a bit like deja vu, but the cruise industry is soldiering on as the Omicron coronavirus variant makes its presence felt at sea as it has on land.
In the early days of the pandemic, cruise ships became synonymous with COVID-19, as virus-hit vessels struggled to disembark passengers and crew.
The cruise industry subsequently shut down for months, and while some European journeys recommenced in summer 2020, cruise ships didn’t navigate US waters for another year.
When cruising did return, it was with stringent rules designed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
This combination of mask-wearing, testing, vaccinations and increased medical facilities led Martyn Griffiths of industry body Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to tell that cruise ships were one of the safest vacation environments available today.
Vessels weren’t guaranteed virus-free, CLIA said, but the goal was to avoid severe illness and major disruption.
Six months later, as the highly transmissible Omicron spreads around the world, the situation seems a little more precarious.
Health and safety
There is no doubt that the Omicron variant has cast a great deal of uncertainty into the travel and tourism sector overall, said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, another CLIA representative, in a recent interview.
She said cruise lines remain confident in their health and safety measures, adding that these measures are proving successful to virtually eliminate severe outcomes, as hospitalizations are minimal.
While fully vaccinated people are not immune to Omicron, Dr William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, told that booster shots improve the individual’s protection against getting severe disease.
However Schaffner cast doubt on cruise lines’ ability to control the spread of the virus on board, even with fully vaccinated passengers and crew, and additional levels of protection in place such as mask wearing and regular testing.
Certainly, unlike the passengers caught up in the COVID fallout of Spring 2020, those on cruise ships today are aware COVID-19 is a risk, in the sense that they could catch it and fall ill, or the virus could disrupt travel plans.
British traveler Joy Bailey experienced first-hand what happens during a COVID-19 outbreak at sea when she flew with her husband from the UK to Florida to embark on a Christmas/New Year sailing on board the Celebrity Equinox in late 2021.
The 2,850 passenger capacity vessel operated by Celebrity Cruises was sailing at 60% capacity.
The current Omicron chaos has also led cruise lines to cancel sailings, sometimes mid-voyage.
Passenger Daniel Jay Park said the unexpected termination of his January 9 sailing on board the Norwegian Gem, a 294-meter-long ship which was sailing with a reduced capacity of 800 didn’t impact his enjoyment of the voyage.
The ship set sail from New York before cutting its voyage short at the Caribbean island of St Maarten.
While Park and his husband were disappointed to miss the scheduled Caribbean ports, they decided to make the most of the circumstances, assured by the fact that everyone on board would have been vaccinated.
Passengers were still able to freely roam around the ship and enjoy activities, said Park.
Essentially, the voyage became a “cruise to nowhere” something some many have opted into voluntarily in recent months in countries including the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Park said the experience didn’t put him off cruising, he also has nothing but praise for the way Norwegian Cruise Line handled the unexpected situation.
The rapid spread of the Omicron Variant around the world may shape how some destination authorities with limited medical resources view even a small number of cases, even when they are being managed with our vigorous protocols, said CLIA’s Golin-Blaugrund.
She added that CLIA is not aware of any situations in which passengers have been prevented from disembarking at their final destinations.
Crew members working on cruise ships right now face an uncertain day-to-day.
CLIA’s Bari Goin-Blaugrund confirmed reports that sometimes COVID-hit crew are transferred to specific quarantine vessels.
Looking to the future
Golin-Blaugrund is hopeful for a brighter cruising future CLIA’s goal is all ocean-going cruise ships back in operation by summer 2022.
Cruise ships in US waters were previously subject to COVID-19 rules enforced by the US Centers for Disease and Protection (CDC).
This has now become optional, but Golin-Blaugrund said most cruise lines will likely continue to work with the CDC.
Meanwhile infectious disease expert William Schaffner is cautiously optimistic about how COVID-19 might develop in 2022, at least in countries with readily available vaccines as boosters and rising natural immunity could render the virus endemic rather than pandemic.
Still, added Schaffner, cruise ships by their nature travel across the world, stopping in different ports and each destination may be in a different stage of its COVID-19 journey.
The cruise ship population both passengers and crew are also international.
Cruise ships could continue to be navigating tricky waters for some time yet.