Will the cruise industry shut down because of 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.
The numbers of COVID-19 cases reported on cruise ships are stacking up again:
- At least 50 cases of COVID-19 on Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas.
- 48 cases confirmed from a sailing Dec. 11 on Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas.
- 10 passengers with COVID-19 disembarked from Cunard's Queen Mary 2 in New York City.
- 17 cases on board Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Breakaway that arrived in New Orleans.
We may see more numbers like this as omicron is forecast to spread across the country. As the numbers climb, will cruise lines halt operations as they did in March 2020, leaving the industry shuttered for more than a year?
Though the answer remains unclear, it doesn't seem likely.
Lines have yet to cancel any sailings, though some companies adjusted protocols onboard ships. The world is not in the same place with COVID-19 as in 2020. Vaccines are widely available, and enhanced protocols on ships mitigate the spread of communicable diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not moved to shut down or further restrict the cruise industry. The agency's Conditional Sailing Order remains in place until mid-January before it becomes voluntary for cruise lines.
The Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the industry, told USA TODAY in a statement this week that health and safety are the "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 communication.
The protocols in place, which include coronavirus testing, masking, vaccination and other measures, were "designed with variants in mind," CLIA said.
Cruise lines aren't canceling sailings
When news broke about cases on Symphony of the Seas, Lyan Sierra-Caro, director of public relations for Royal Caribbean, told USA TODAY on Sunday that future cruises "are not impacted."
Carnival, the parent company to Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, AIDA Cruises, Seabourn, Cunard, Costa and P&O Cruises, has not canceled 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 spokesperson Roger Frizzell told USA TODAY on Wednesday.
MSC Cruises doesn't have plans to cancel, either.
“To date, we have safely welcomed over 1 million guests globally," Luca Biondolillo, chief communication 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 tightened onboard restrictions in the face of omicron.
Carnival Cruise Line updated its mask policy Friday for sailings through Jan. 31.
All passengers 2 and older are "requested" to wear masks indoors except when they are eating, drinking or in their staterooms. The cruise line requested that passengers wear masks in large gatherings outside if physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Norwegian requires passengers to wear masks indoors except when eating or drinking or in their stateroom.
The cruise line asks passengers to wear their masks outdoors if social distancing isn't feasible and to follow local regulations during port visits.
Last month, Norwegian extended its vaccination requirement for 100% of passengers indefinitely.
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-19 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, in part because of 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, said in October in an email to USA TODAY.
Just because cases are emerging on 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, an 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 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 said that over the next few weeks, incidents similar to the Symphony of the Seas cluster of cases will become "daily stories" as omicron spreads.
"I don’t think they will be looking to cancel cruises," Winkleman said. "They have tightened mask policies, but I think they’re ready to deal with omicron or any other variant that comes next."