Cruise lines navigate complex rules as Alaska sailings resume


It’s a sight Seattle hasn’t seen in a while: vacationers queue at Pier 91, many wearing Hawaiian shirts, bucket hats and sunglasses, with suitcases and smiles. The majestic princess floats to his left, the sea serenade to the right.

Under sunny skies, the first Alaska cruise of the season – and the first since the start of the pandemic – set off on Monday on a seven-night voyage as Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas.

The long-anticipated return of cruises to Seattle continues this month as six other cruise lines resume sailing, among them Seattle-based Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. Starting Friday, ships will depart Seattle almost daily for the rest of the month. August will see two departures over a few days.

“We’ve been waiting for two years to move to Alaska,” said 52-year-old Peter Dorn, one of the first people waiting to board the Serenade Monday morning with his wife, 51-year-old Cathy. The Massachusetts couple are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, and Dorn said they’ve been on more than 20 cruises. “We’re often cruisers.”

But Monday’s resumption also highlights the complexities of cruises in the current phase of the global pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks cruise lines to decide whether they will require 95% of the ship’s passengers to be vaccinated, thereby qualifying as a “vaccinated cruise.” Based on that decision, there are guidelines for use of masks, social distancing and testing.

Royal Caribbean opted not to meet the 95% limit for sailing Serenade of the Seas. This does not mean that the guests have not been vaccinated; In fact, everyone who is eligible for the vaccine must have received a vaccine.

The nuance in Royal Caribbean’s decision lies in the cruise line’s decision to accept non-vaccinated children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine in the United States. Some other ships are allowing unvaccinated children on board.

For a trip to be considered a “vaccinated cruise,” the CDC requires that 95% of passengers and 95% of crew be fully vaccinated 14 days prior to boarding.

On those cruises, fully vaccinated passengers are not required to wear masks anywhere. They are not required to maintain social distance. There is no need for testing.

The CDC also says that crew members who have been fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks. However, most cruise lines that leave Seattle require crew members to wear them, at least for initial voyages.

“You have herd immunity on board,” said Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line. “On board, it’s like a bubble.”

The alternative, or decision not to require high vaccination rates for passengers and crew, requires all guests and crew members to wear masks indoors, except in designated “vaccination areas”, where only those vaccinated. Guests are allowed.

Peter and Kathy Dorney from Massachusetts make their way to the terminal, where they will check in on their cruise to Alaska on July 19 aboard the Serenade of the Seas at Terminal 91 in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times/TNS)

Most ships leaving Seattle are following the “vaccinated cruise” route. These include Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam, Princess Cruises’s Majestic Princess and Carnival Miracle.

While Serenade of the Seas won’t clear the 95% vaccination limit, the cruise line still requires passengers 16 and older to be vaccinated. In August, it will require vaccines for travelers age 12 and older. All crew members have been fully vaccinated.

Jay Schneider, chief product innovation officer for Royal Caribbean Group, said the decision to allow unvaccinated children on board – therefore preventing the ship from clearing the 95% vaccination limit – was largely to maintain the brand’s focus on family travel. was created for.

Royal Caribbean is still emulating the “vaccinated cruise” experience in many areas of the ship, particularly those where children are not otherwise permitted. This includes casinos, exclusive dining rooms, pubs, lounges and some events where guests can stay indoors without masks.

For Princess Cruises, it was “absolutely torturous” to make the decision not to allow unvaccinated children on board, said Princess Vice President Lisa Sime, who has been with the company for 38 years. “It was a special heartbreaker for us,” especially given the cruise line’s efforts to become a family-focused brand in recent years.

For unaffiliated travellers, some of the precautions taken earlier during the pandemic remain in place.

They must be tested for coronavirus at the port before boarding the ship. According to CDC guidelines, for trips of more than four days, they must be tested again upon return before disembarking.

Royal Caribbean will place unvaccinated travelers on specific shore excursions while exploring destinations. Holland America is mandating that unvaccinated passengers – who would not be children, but people with medical exceptions – do the same, and wear masks indoors almost at all times on board the ship, except when eating out.

Bhupesh Singh, 44, who boarded Serenade of the Seas on Monday with his wife Hansi and their two illiterate children – both under the age of 12 – said he feels comfortable with Royal Caribbean’s preaching, Even with extra precautions. To travel with children. He said he brought his family on a cruise from Seattle, where Royal Caribbean requires at least all adults to be vaccinated. Not so in Florida, where he’s from.

The reduced caliber on Serenade of the Seas was also encouraging to Singh. Royal Caribbean declined to say how many passengers it would carry, but said it would be “much less” than the full cassette, which typically holds around 2,500 people. Holland America and Princess Cruises said they would begin their Alaska cruises in about 60% of the cassettes, moving slowly during the season.

Some cruise lines will also use technology to trace the location of passengers. Royal Caribbean will use “tracelets” or wristbands that passengers must wear to track on board. Princess Cruises will use medallions, portable devices used for various tasks on the ship, which will keep a log of the passengers’ exposure.

Physically, cruise lines say that the layout of the ships remains roughly the same as the passengers are used to. Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas will replace dining tables and casino machines. Holland America and Princess Cruises said their lines were not planning any such modifications.

All cruise lines say they have made significant upgrades to their HVAC systems, investing heavily in air-filtration systems that bring in fresh air and don’t recycle onboard air. And they tout their new cleaning protocol, which they say is more thorough and sanitized than before.

After line up, passengers head to the terminal, where they’ll check in for their cruise to Alaska on July 19 aboard the Serenade of the Seas at Terminal 91 in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times/TNS)

Janet Bessman, professor of epidemiology at the Washington School of Public Health, said cruise lines should consider the Delta version. The variant is more contagious than its predecessors and has sent coronavirus infections spreading again across the country, raising the possibility that a traveler could contract the Delta variant. The risk is also likely to increase if cruise ships carry older passengers.

Bessman said cruise ships had “a known history of infectious disease outbreaks” even before the coronavirus pandemic, noting that a certain group of people mingled closely with each other.

Despite his concerns, Bessman said the plans outlined by cruises departing Seattle — with their required higher vaccination rates — were in line with plans for the rest of the United States to reopen. “It’s hard for me to imagine what else they’d be able to do.”

She said that if she finds herself in an environment where she knows for certain that at least 95% of the people around her have been fully vaccinated, she may be able to remove her mask indoors. She will feel comfortable, as long as she does not have any symptoms.

Whatever the policy cruise lines are in front, Singh said, “people need to be self-aware, and they have to take their own precautions.”

Asked if he’s worried about the Delta version, Dorn said, “It will be what it is… just take whatever precautions you can and then, you know, live your life.”

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