Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean will soon drop their mask mandates, relaxing their coronavirus protocols while the omicron-variant-fueled surge that tore through the cruise industry for months continues an overall decline.
Norwegian said in an update to its Sail Safe guidance that it will nix masking rules for all departures starting March 1. The company recommends passengers wear masks indoors — except when they are actively eating or drinking — and outside when social distancing is not possible. Norwegian will continue to enforce mask requirements on European sailings depending on local government rules.
For sailings that embark after Feb. 28, “the decision to wear a mask covering when onboard is at the discretion of each guest,” the Norwegian guidance said.
In an advisory last updated Jan. 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintained a Level 4 warning, its most severe, recommending against cruise travel because of the risk of coronavirus exposure. Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that it was easing its protocols “given the progress in the current public health environment.”
According to the previous CDC sailing order, if at least 95 percent of a ship’s passengers and crew were vaccinated, the vessel was allowed to ease its mask requirements. Once omicron arrived and showed a propensity for breaking through vaccine protections, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruises told customers to mask up again.
Norwegian’s new guidance also requires guests to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test administered by a verified third party or to present a medically supervised at-home test taken before boarding.
Norwegian has been administering free rapid antigen tests at the pier, but the company will stop covering the cost next month. For passengers unable to obtain proof of a negative test ahead of time, testing will be available at the terminal, but guests must pay for the service. Prices may vary depending on the port and vendor, the cruise line said.
As part of the updated guidelines, children under 5 who are not vaccinated will also be able to board Norwegian ships. Guests 5 and older need to be fully vaccinated, as are crew. Since emerging from an industry-wide shutdown last summer, Norwegian had maintained one of the strictest vaccination policies among major cruise lines, requiring every person onboard to show proof of vaccination and making no exception for young children.
The CDC allowed its mandatory restrictions for cruise travel to expire Jan. 15, shifting to recommendations.
The agency released details about its voluntary program Wednesday. Cruise lines have until Feb. 18 to tell the CDC if they plan to participate, but the agency said in January that Norwegian’s parent company had opted in already.
Most of the former rules remain in place as recommendations. But the updates included a higher threshold for a ship to warrant a CDC investigation. While one covid-positive crew member or 0.1 percent of total passengers testing positive met the threshold before, the number is now 0.3 percent of all people on board.
The CDC also added categories to note the vaccination status of ships and included a new level: “vaccination standard of excellence.” Those would be ships sailing with at least 95 percent of travelers who are vaccinated and boosted, if eligible. Protocols for isolation and quarantine on ships in that category are less stringent than on ships where passengers are not up-to-date.
The Cruise Lines International Association said the updated guidance appeared "unnecessary in light of societal trends away from more restrictive measures" and took aim at the new categories in particular.
“The CDC’s guidance for multitiered cruises is counterproductive to consumers, creating market confusion between the various tiers, and potentially unworkable in practice,” the industry group said.