Will the cruise industry shut down due to the omicron variant as it did in March 2020?



Cruise lines including Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have already made moves to tighten on board restrictions in the face of omicron.

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The numbers of COVID cases reported on cruise ships are starting to stack up again:

We may see more numbers like this as omicron is forecast to have a massive spread across the country. As the numbers start to climb, will cruise lines halt operations as it did in March 2020, leaving the industry shuttered for more than a year?

While the answer remains unclear, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lines have yet to cancel any sailings, though some companies have adjusted protocols onboard ships. The world is also not in the same place with COVID as in 2020, with vaccines widely available and enhanced protocols on ships to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has not made moves to shut down or further restrict the cruise industry. The agency’s Conditional Sail Order simply remains in place until mid-January before it becomes voluntary for cruise lines.

Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the cruise industry, told USA TODAY in a statement this week that health and safety are the cruise industry’s “highest priority.”

“Together with our members, we are monitoring developments related to the omicron variant and remain closely engaged with local and national authorities in the places where cruises sail,” the association said in a statement provided by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications.

The protocols in place, which include testing, masking, vaccination and other measures were “designed with variants in mind,” CLIA added. 

Cruise lines aren’t canceling sailings

When news broke about cases on Symphony of the Seas, Lyan Sierra-Caro told USA TODAY on Sunday that future cruises “are not impacted.” 

Carnival Corp., the parent company to Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, AIDA Cruises, Seabourn, Cunard, Costa and P&O Cruises, has not canceled more cruises in relation to omicron. 

“Our enhanced health and safety protocols have proven to be effective. We do not have any cruise cancellations because of the Omicron variant,” Carnival Corp. spokesperson Roger Frizzell, told USA TODAY on Wednesday.

MSC Cruises doesn’t have plans to cancel, either.

“To-date, we have safely welcomed over one million guests globally,” Luca Biondolillo, chief communications officer for MSC, told USA TODAY. “The end-to-end health and safety protocol that we feature on board our ships has demonstrated that it can protect guests, crew and the communities we visit through all phases of the pandemic since we first restarted operations in August 2020.”

Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian are tightening protocols

Cruise lines including Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have already made moves to tighten on board restrictions in the face of omicron.

Carnival Cruise Line updated its mask policy Friday for sailings through Jan. 31 as omicron continues to spread. 

All passengers 2 and older are “requested” to wear masks whenever indoors except when they are eating, drinking or in their respected staterooms. The cruise line also requested that passengers wear masks in large gatherings outside if physical distancing cannot be maintained. 

Norwegian will now require passengers to wear masks while indoors except for when actively eating or drinking or during time spent in their stateroom.

Additionally, the cruise line is asking that passengers wear their masks while outdoors if social distancing isn’t feasible and that they follow local regulations during port visits.

Last month, Norwegian also extended its vaccination requirement for 100% of passengers indefinitely.

Similarly, Royal Caribbean told passengers in a note Friday that it would tighten mask restrictions through Jan. 5.

“With the recent uptick of COVID-19 in the world and added omicron variant concerns, we feel it prudent to temporarily tighten our onboard health protocols to require masks indoors at all times, unless actively eating or drinking,” the cruise line said. “This new update also applies to vaccinated areas and venues.”

The cruise line asked that passengers understand that health and safety come first.

COVID cases were always expected on board, according to the CDC

It doesn’t come as a surprise that coronavirus continues to find its way onto cruise ships – the CDC has anticipated cases on board ships since before the omicron variant emerged, due in part to the very nature of cruising.

“We’ve never said that cruising will be a zero-risk activity,” Capt. Aimee Treffiletti, who leads the CDC’s maritime unit, told USA TODAY in late October. “I think we’ve all always expected that cases would be identified.”

“Unlike other forms of travel, a cruise ship is more like congregate residential setting where thousands of travelers (passengers and crew) are living for multiple days (or months for crew) on the same ship: eating, sleeping, and participating in activities together in one location. COVID-19, like other illnesses, can spread quickly in group settings like cruise ships,” ​​​​​Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, added in an October email to USA TODAY.

But just because cases are emerging on cruise ships doesn’t mean that cruising is as risky as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, thanks in large part to protocols. Outbreaks in 2020 forced ships, including the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, into quarantine with more than 700 infected on Diamond Princess and dozens infected on the Grand Princess.

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Should lines suspend cruises?

Jim Walker, the attorney who runs Cruise Law News, a site with a tag line that reads “Everything Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know,” told USA TODAY that he believes it’s prudent to suspend cruise operations for “the foreseeable future.”

“The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus is arriving like a giant tsunami wave,” Walker said.

“While Broadway and professional sports have canceled or postponed events, cruise lines show no signs of voluntarily slowing down,” Walker continued.

Walker believes that over the next few weeks, stories similar to that of the Symphony of the Seas cluster of cases will become “daily stories” as omicrons spreads.

Cruise attorney Michael Winkleman told USA TODAY that he doesn’t think cruise lines will stop any time soon – and that the companies are preparing for variants.

“I don’t think they will be looking to cancel cruises,” Winkelman said. “They have tightened mask policies, but I think they’re ready to deal with omicron or any other variant that comes next.”



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