Is cruising safe and will you get on a cruise ship again? These are two questions we’ve been asked a lot lately, as we’ve begun our careful transition back into travel. As you may know, we’re big fans of cruising. We had just disembarked from our 13th cruise in January 2020, right as COVID-19 first reached the United States.
Cruising has been honestly been an ideal way for us to travel, especially considering some of the health issues Ann has faced. We once cruised just a few weeks after she had thoracoscopic thoracic surgery. We love that with cruising, we unpack in our cabin once and then our hotel takes us from city to city. If Ann is tired or hurting, she is always just steps away from our room and rest. And of course, there are medical personnel on board in case of emergencies. Fortunately, we’ve never had to meet any of them.
Furthermore, we get to see and do something new each day. We enjoy exquisite food and drinks, meet interesting new people, and have rarely felt bored or crowded on a cruise ship.
How we are deciding if we should cruise again
For the past year, we’ve done extensive research and read from many credible sources. We’ve spent a great deal of time contemplating our decision about if and when we’d cruise again. This article explains what we’ve learned about the cruise industry’s response to COVID-19, what it is doing now to lower the risk of illness, and our decision today (May 19, 2021).
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Superspreading events happened on sea and land
First, we must acknowledge that early on in the pandemic, cruise ships had approximately 3,900 cases and 111 deaths due to COVID-19, according to an investigation by the Miami Herald.
But let’s be honest. The virus had no problem spreading on land, either. After all, according to the New York Times, there have been 164 million cases and 3.39 million deaths worldwide due to the coronavirus. That all happened despite cruise ships suspending all sailings beginning in March 2020.
Cruise lines have always put safety first
Cruise lines have long maintained the safety of passengers and crew as their highest priority. It is one of the few businesses in the hospitality industry that is regulated by the federal government, as well. We’ve seen these safety precautions first hand. The cleaning practices at sea generally exceed anything we’ve seen in hospitality on land. This is especially true on Celebrity Cruises, which is the line we’ve cruised with most.
We’ve watched crew members sanitize seat cushions, wipe down handrails, and squirt hand sanitizer onto the palms of every single person boarding the ship and entering the dining area. There is even a crew member who spends the day going from elevator to elevator erasing fingerprints. We’ve never seen that level of staff resources in a hotel, casino, or resort on land.
Two Celebrity Cruises bartenders (not the ones pictured above) once told us a single fly was spotted near their bar. As a result, they worked well into the early morning hours deep cleaning every single inch, nook, and cranny of the bar area. It even meant cleaning light fixtures in the ceiling. When was the last time you saw that happen at your local pub? And this was all BEFORE the pandemic.
Early days of the pandemic
In January of 2020, while the world was still coming to grips with a new Coronavirus, cruise lines began cancelling cruises in parts of the world where the virus was rapidly spreading. They implemented new safety precautions immediately and enhanced screening measures prior to boarding cruises.
Cruise lines also banned passengers who were from certain parts of the world where Coronavirus cases were high, and denied boarding to people in high-risk groups. And they voluntarily cancelled all cruises immediately following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic. This suspension of cruising came before the CDC issued its no-sail order.
It’s easy to sit here in the late spring of 2021 with the benefit of hindsight and say what cruise ships should have done in February and early March of 2020. Reading this article from Purdue University from February 2020, full of the best information of the day, highlights how little we knew then and how much more we know now. Among other things in the article we now know are not accurate, it says that toilet handles probably posed the greatest threat aboard an airplane.
In reality, we should have shut down movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, casinos, and bars on land, as well as at sea. We should have put on masks sooner, and stopped gathering indoors. We should have focused on ventilation, not wiping down our groceries and mail. No industry handled this properly because we didn’t know exactly what we were dealing with. We were all naive. We were all learning. None of us knew how big this would be.
Cruise lines study challenges and learn from them
Learning is something the cruise industry does well. Throughout its history, it has learned from challenges. Each time a problem arises, the industry studies it and implements changes to make traveling on a ship even safer for everyone. This coronavirus pandemic is no different.
After all cruises were suspended, cruise lines went to work studying the virus, how it spreads, and how they could make cruising safer. Needless to say, they’ve made significant changes.
Cruise lines enlisted the help of medical experts
Royal Caribbean Group partnered with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and formed the Healthy Cruising Panel. They brought together renowned medical experts to serve on a committee co-chaired by Governor Mike Leavitt, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This panel put together a 65-page report with 74 recommendations for the safe resumption of cruising and made it available to the entire industry. You can read that report HERE.
The report includes recommendations for testing, screening, exposure reduction, increased sanitation, and better ventilation. It goes on to detail how to respond to an outbreak, how to mitigate risk, and how to plan cruise activities. In all, the document resulted in the creation of more than 2,000 separate protocols for passenger and crew safety according to Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group.
What other hospitality business on land has gone to those lengths?
Improved ventilation on cruise ships
One of the biggest changes to cruise ships based on this work is how they handle ventilation. Instead of recirculating air as was done prior to the pandemic, cruise ships will now use fresh air from outside. Our understanding is that the goal is to have 12 air changes per hour in private cabins and up to 15 air changes per hour or more in public spaces.
In addition, we’ve read that are filtration has been improved with hospital grade and HEPA air filters being installed where possible. Royal Caribbean even worked with infectious disease experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center to ensure their changes have the desired effect on the spread of virus. As Nebraskans, we like that, too.
For more on improved filtration, watch THIS SHORT VIDEO.
Self-imposed recommendations seem to be working
Using the recommendations from this guide, cruising has resumed – with success – from select ports around the world. While successful cruises from Singapore might be attributed to the lack of coronavirus cases in that country, there have also been ships operating successfully in the Mediterranean and in the Canaries.
Cruise lines are working closely with local governments
Who can forget the images of passengers stuck aboard the Diamond Princess in January of 2020. Sadly, Japanese health officials denied disembarkation to the passengers aboard the ship. They, not the cruise lines, decided it was best for public health if the passengers remained aboard quarantined. And while it may have seemed a reasonable idea at the time, we’ve since learned it wasn’t a good plan.
Today, cruise lines have made agreements with the governments of the ports from which they plan to sail. These ensure that if there is an outbreak aboard a ship, passengers will be allowed to disembark and, in most cases, return home.
Cruise ships are actively testing passengers and crew
Cruise ships will actively test guests and crew and screen for illness. In addition, action plans are in place on how to electronically contact trace and contain a detected outbreak on a cruise ship. We have kept in touch with several crew members who have returned to ships, already. They all attest to being tested for COVID-19, quarantined in a guest cabin for 14 days, and then vaccinated.
Vaccines may be required
With the successful restart of cruising from select ports, and COVID-19 vaccinations now available, we have become even more confident about cruising. Some cruise lines like Norwegian, Virgin Voyages, and Royal Caribbean, have decided to require the vaccine for all or most passengers and crew.
Each line is different, and you may find this list to be a helpful resource. We have decided that when we return to cruising, we will choose a cruise line with a vaccine requirement. And being vaccinated ourselves, we are already at very low risk of catching the virus according to the CDC and our own doctors.
Cruise ships will be even cleaner
In addition to the vaccine, the cruise lines will layer on recommendations from the Healthy Cruising Panel. Those have already allowed for a safe restart for cruising in other parts of the world. When added to the already rigorous pre-pandemic cleaning, hygiene, and safety standards, we’re confident that we will feel more than safe on a cruise ship.
We have to tell you, having sailed on 10 Celebrity cruises, we’ve always felt like our health and safety were the highest priority. We’d be hard pressed to name a hotel or restaurant on land we’ve seen that consistently maintains the level of cleanliness and hygiene we’ve experienced on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean ships.
Royal Caribbean’s Mr. Fain stated that the goal of all this work is to give, “Our guests, our crew and the destinations the confidence that the environment on the Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Silversea or TUI Ship is safer than a walk down Main Street.” And we believe him.
So is cruising safe and will we cruise again?
Deciding when and whether to cruise again is obviously a personal decision, and should not be taken lightly. Like so many other things in life, the correct decision for one person may not be best for another. Talk with your doctor. Our goal here was to provide some links to credible resources and demonstrate how we’ve made our decision.
That said, our answer is a definitive YES. We will cruise again without hesitation.
Both of us are fully vaccinated (Moderna) and Ann is not on the immune suppressing drugs she was last year. We do plan to choose a cruise line that requires vaccinations for passengers and crew. We will also continue to practice good personal hygiene to prevent any illness. And, we will continue to watch what happens as cruising resumes in case we need to adjust our decision. So, Lord willing, (and with CDC permission for cruising to resume) we’ll be sipping an adult beverage on The Retreat Sundeck soon.
How about you? Will you cruise again? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing from you.