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Cruises are adding rules as delta cases surge. Here’s how to keep track.

From vaccine mandates to more masking, covid-era cruising is changing just as it started to set sail

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Just as the cruise industry was starting to regain its footing, operators are having to change course as the highly transmissible delta variant sends coronavirus cases soaring again.

Most cruise lines are requiring the vast majority of passengers to be vaccinated, a status that allowed them to avoid extra testing and to enjoy most parts of a cruise without wearing a mask.

But in recent days, some of the world’s largest cruise lines have said that even passengers who are vaccinated will need to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding.

And some operators — including Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line — are adding mask requirements for everyone in crowded indoor spaces such as elevators, shops and casinos.

The rapidly changing guidelines mean the rules that were in place when someone booked a cruise may not be the same ones passengers need to follow when they actually sail away.

So what do potential cruise passengers need to know before booking or boarding?

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Cruise protocols are evolving quickly

Carnival Cruise Line said Wednesday that it was “adapting to the evolving public health situation” with its temporary changes to mask and testing requirements. The company requires most passengers to be fully vaccinated, with some exemptions available for children too young or adults who cannot get the shot.

In its announcement requiring everyone, including those who are vaccinated, to wear masks on elevators and in some other indoor areas starting Saturday, the cruise line pointed to similar measures in place in Las Vegas casinos, Broadway theaters and Disney theme parks. As of Aug. 14, Carnival is also requiring all passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within three days of boarding.

“These new requirements are being implemented to protect our guests and crew while on board, and to continue to provide confidence to our homeports and destinations that we are doing our part to support their efforts to protect public health and safety,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said in a statement. “We expect these requirements will be temporary and appreciate the cooperation of our guests.”

Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, both part of Carnival Corp., are also requiring vaccinated passengers to test negative before boarding — either immediately or effective soon — and wear masks on elevators and in other indoor areas such as entertainment venues and shops.

This past week, Royal Caribbean International announced its own tweak, mandating that all passengers be tested before taking a cruise in the United States, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley wrote on his Facebook page that he realized the decision would comfort some guests — but also make many unhappy.

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“We are trying our very best to provide a safe and healthy and fun vacation for all our guests our crew and the communities we visit during these challenging times,” he wrote.

For U.S. cruises leaving Friday through Sept. 6, all Celebrity Cruises passengers over the age of 2 — even if vaccinated — will also need to hand over a negative coronavirus test at boarding.

When protocols change, operators are emailing those updates to booked passengers and making the new information public online.

All cruise lines have dedicated health and safety pages, from Carnival’s “Have Fun. Be Safe.” page to Royal Caribbean’s “Healthy Sail Center,” Norwegian’s “Sail Safe” site, Princess Cruises’ “Cruise Health” page and Celebrity’s “Healthy at Sea” section. Many of those sites link to specific departure ports for details on vaccination and testing requirements, mask mandates and other rules.

Ships get color-coded based on their covid cases

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of the 64 ships that are operating or seeking to operate in U.S. waters have had a reported case of the virus on board in the last week or so. Of those, at least 13 are now sailing with paying guests on board.

On a CDC table that was last updated Thursday, ships can be designated as green, orange, yellow, red or gray on the site. Orange means a vessel has reported cases of coronavirus in the past seven days but has not met the threshold for a CDC investigation; yellow means the ship has met the parameters for an investigation.

If a ship moves to red, that means the number of cases in the past seven days is “at or above” the threshold for passenger and crew infections.

“Based on CDC’s investigation, additional precautions, such as returning to port immediately or delaying the next voyage, will be taken if it is suspected that continuing normal operations may subject on board travelers or newly arriving travelers to disease,” the CDC says on the site, referring to ships designated as red.

But detailed information (or sometimes any information) about those infections can be hard to come by, depending on the cruise line. Operators are rarely releasing information about positive cases, though many are offering statements when questioned by reporters.

Carnival’s new mask policy went into place early — on Wednesday night — aboard Carnival Vista, where the company is “managing a small number of positive cases on board,” spokesman Vance Gulliksen said in an email. He would not say how many cases, whether the passengers were vaccinated or what their condition was. The ship is sailing from Galveston, Tex.

“We have identified and tested close contacts and anyone who tested positive is in isolation,” the statement said. He said the voyage would continue as planned.

Carnival Vista’s status is listed as “yellow” on the CDC table.

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As of Thursday, the ships on the CDC’s site were listed as either green, orange or yellow. According to the CDC, further information about cases on board would need to come from the cruise lines.

But cruise companies including Carnival, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Royal Caribbean International did not provide information in response to questions about most of their ships that were listed as orange or yellow.

Cruise lines have said they anticipate positive cases on board; their protocols are meant to keep those cases isolated and prevent outbreaks.

Celebrity Cruises spokeswoman Susan Lomax said its three passenger ships on the chart — all listed as yellow — had either already returned to green and had not yet been updated on the chart or were about to return to green on Friday. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have consistently provided detailed statements and information about positive cases on ships in response to questions since their ships started sailing again in North America in June.

Bayley, the Royal Caribbean CEO, has even posted updates on his public Facebook page about positive cases and new rules.

“Even with the vast majority of our onboard population highly vaccinated we are seeing more covid positive cases with vaccinated guests,” he wrote last week after six passengers on a Bahamas cruise tested positive.

Still, for everyday cruisers who don’t have access to press contacts, it can be difficult to dig up specific information.

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Attorney Jim Walker, who runs the Cruise Law News blog, said he checks media sources and sets up alerts for specific search terms. But short of that, he said, people who are planning a cruise don’t have a lot of options to research the situation on board.

“The CDC color tracking system seems to be a good place to start, but it doesn’t really give you the true details,” he said.

How to spot the CDC rule followers

A ship will be marked as gray if the operator chooses not to follow the CDC’s conditional sailing order — a set of rules that ships needed to follow to start sailing again after shutting down last year — on a voluntary basis. The CDC order required 95 percent of crew and guests to be vaccinated, among other rules.

A Florida lawsuit challenged the CDC’s authority earlier this year, and a judge agreed in June that the agency had overreached. As of late July, the CDC’s rules became mere recommendations for cruises in Florida.

According to CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey, cruise lines that are on the color-coded chart have all confirmed that they are following the order. She said one that is expecting to start visiting Miami soon, Crystal Serenity, is in discussion with the agency about compliance.

A Crystal statement said the company is “complying with all CDC onboard recommendations and guidelines” for the ship, which is sailing in the Bahamas, except for a requirement to be out of service for two weeks. “We continue to have an open and good dialogue with CDC on this matter,” the statement said.

If any ships were to be marked as gray, they would still have to report cases of illness or death and be subject to inspection. They also could be detained if sanitary measures were necessary to prevent the “introduction, transmission or spread of communicable diseases,” the CDC said.

In a statement, the CDC said that due to the phased approach of the conditional sailing order — which includes testing plans and onboard protocols — the agency “is confident that cruising can resume safely under the [order].”

“These factors, in addition to the availability of covid-19 vaccines, make it unlikely that a ship will need to return to port due to a covid-19 outbreak,” the statement said.