Linda Klauschie, 68, was ready last month to take her first cruise since 2019 — but she also assumed her ship would probably have coronavirus cases on board.
“I took the elevator, in two weeks, all of three times,” she said. “Luckily I’ve been doing aerobics … so it didn’t kill me.”
Passengers such as Klauschie — as well as some newcomers — are fueling the U.S. cruise recovery after a 15-month shutdown. Nearly a year after sailings from North America restarted, three of the world’s largest cruise lines will have their full fleets in service as of next week. And some cruise giants have reported record-breaking bookings.
But even as the cruise comeback gains momentum, the coronavirus remains a stubborn reality. While case numbers are far from the highs seen during the surge of the omicron variant, the majority of ships sailing in U.S. waters are under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of coronavirus outbreaks.
According to data updated Friday, the CDC’s cruise ship status report shows that 76 of 92 ships have reported cases of the coronavirus on board. Of those, 11 were below the threshold for a CDC investigation, which is triggered when cases are reported in 0.3 percent or more of total passengers and crew. That means 65 ships met the requirements to trigger an investigation.
By comparison, in early January, all 92 passenger-carrying ships in U.S. waters had met the threshold for investigation. The CDC warned all passengers to avoid cruise ships in late December amid the omicron spike, but it removed all warnings in late March.
Public health experts have warned that cruise ships are especially vulnerable to the spread of the disease because of the large number of people gathered in tight quarters over a sustained period of time.
“Cruise travel will always pose risk, and vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19, including severe illness, hospitalization, and death,” the CDC’s website says.
Some passengers are experiencing that risk firsthand, news reports show: Some passengers who tested positive during a Panama Canal sailing on a Carnival ship had to isolate in their rooms and in Seattle hotels at the end of the trip. One Princess Cruises ship that has visited Alaska and Hawaii had 253 cases across multiple sailings between late March and late April, public health officials said.
Major cruise lines require passengers to be vaccinated, with rare exceptions, and to test negative before a cruise. The CDC considers a ship “highly vaccinated” if 90 percent of passengers are immunized — a recent change from 95 percent. While pandemic-era public health rules, including vaccination and testing requirements, are now recommendations, cruise lines have agreed to voluntarily follow them.
Because of those protocols, many passengers say they are comfortable with the risk.
“I think we’ve gotten to the point where no one expects that they’ll go anywhere and be perfectly insulated from covid,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of the cruise news and review site Cruise Critic. “I think people are making life decisions with that in mind: ‘What level am I willing to submit myself to?’”
She said that during the pandemic, readers of the site — a pro-cruise crowd — reported that they felt more comfortable on a cruise ship than on a plane or at a grocery store or indoor wedding. And, she said, the message boards where travelers talk about hot topics of the day are more often focusing on pre-covid concerns.
“I think that’s a good sign that, hey, this sort of feels more normal,” she said. “They are concerned about dress code and that kind of thing.”
Brandon Davis, 39, lives in a town in northern Georgia where, last he heard, fewer than 40 percent of people are vaccinated. So boarding the Carnival Mardi Gras late last month in Florida’s Port Canaveral with a vaccination rate of at least 95 percent was a change of pace.
“I felt safer on the ship than I do at home,” said Davis, who is vaccinated and boosted.
Davis, who had last taken a cruise in October, said he was a little stressed about the pre-cruise testing despite being cautious in the week leading up to the trip. But he also felt safer knowing everyone who boarded with him had gotten a negative result.
“I know it’s for the greater good,” he said.
And the cruise — his 24th — was very good. On Twitter, he described the trip as “absolutely epic” and raved about the food, the ship’s layout, the excursions and the activities.
“It was the best ship I’ve ever been on,” said Davis, who works in his family’s carpet-manufacturing business.
He paid some attention to news about outbreaks before the trip. Once on board, he avoided elevators and some crowded areas, and he limited conversations outside his party. But ultimately, he decided: “Life goes on.”
As more of the world takes a living-with-the-virus approach and travel restrictions fall globally, cruise passengers appear to be adopting a similar approach, said Pam Young, executive vice president of partner relations at Internova Travel Group. She said the omicron wave in December and January had a “serious impact” on bookings, but that started to ease by the end of February and March.
“Now we’re kind of getting back to normalcy where we can choose where we can go, the world is open to us,” she said. “Everyone’s jumping on board.”
Natasha Arney, 25, canceled her planned cruise in 2021. But after her in-laws took a cruise and described the protocols, she booked a trip for her twins’ 2nd birthday in February 2023.
“If they’re taking it that serious, we are going,” said Arney, who cares for her children and works as a dog groomer. “I need a vacation.”
She is most looking forward to leaving her home in Southern Maryland and having “other people preparing my meals for me.” Also: not having to clean.
Vaccinated and boosted herself, Arney is hopeful a vaccine will be available for children under 5 before the trip. She said she is not keeping track of coronavirus cases on cruise ships or the CDC’s reporting, but she will start paying more attention in November and December.
“If we feel like we need to cancel or move it, we will,” she said.