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You asked: Are cruises safe from covid?

This week’s By The Way Concierge outlines the coronavirus risks and precautions aboard cruise ships

(Cynthia Kittler for The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

“The cruise industry early on was full of ships that seemed like covid Petri dishes. Now that time has passed, ships re-cleaned and new policies are in place, are there still covid cases currently on cruise ships? If so, which lines? During the height of shutdown, cruise lines were offering last-minute cancellations with future cruise credit. Now we’ve been told those waivers are over and standard cancellation rules are back. I would think that means there is no longer any covid issue in the cruise industry, but that seems so unlikely with the delta variant so strong.” — Anonymous.

Like any kind of travel right now, taking a cruise comes with coronavirus risks. So does going to bars and restaurants in your hometown or gathering indoors with extended family for the holidays.

As you mentioned, the cruise industry began to nosedive early in the pandemic with highly publicized passenger and crew outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order for cruises in March 2020 accordingly. They have since allowed sailings to resume with coronavirus restrictions under a conditional sailing order that is in place for all cruise ships operating in the United States (except for those in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis won a lawsuit blocking the order). The CDC tracks which ships have reported cases — and which it’s investigating — here.

Each cruise line is approaching coronavirus defense differently — that includes entry requirements, mask mandates, testing rules and cancellation policies, so read the fine print before you book. But stringent measures don’t provide airtight protection from the coronavirus.

More than a thousand cases have been discovered on cruises in the United States, a recent CDC report revealed. Many were breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated people.

This past weekend, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship with more than 3,200 people on board made headlines after it docked in New Orleans with at least 17 passengers and crew members infected with the coronavirus (including one probable case of the omicron variant).

“They’re trying everything that they can, and I have a lot of respect for the risk mitigation protocols and practices that they’ve put in place,” Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, says of cruise lines. “Unfortunately, they just can’t do enough to mitigate that risk.”

Gonsenhauser notes that cruise ships are “really productive spaces for viruses and bacteria to proliferate." With more transmissible variants looming and an increase in reinfection among the vaccinated, he strongly encourages travelers to choose a different vacation option than cruising.

“All it takes is one first case," Gonsenhauser says. "The index case in an environment like that can lead to a superspreader situation, and the risks are just are just too high to accept the risk of that occurring.”

How to protect your travel plans from covid chaos

However, Gonsenhauser does say there are ways to cruise safer. He encourages cruise passengers to get fully vaccinated and boosted before travel, wear masks and practice good hand hygiene on board. He also says they should find places to eat that encourage physical distancing from other guests and spend more time outdoors. Choosing a small river cruise over a deep-sea ship with thousands of passengers can make a huge difference.

If you do choose to cruise on the open ocean, know that companies are investing in changes.

Trey Byus, chief expedition officer for Lindblad Expeditions, says they have developed a “rational testing protocol" for sailings among other changes like requiring masks indoors and reducing ship capacity. While the company’s sailings focused on ports that allow customers to explore wildlife and nature, it has minimized or eliminated opportunities for travelers to interact with local communities, thereby reducing the risk of exposure.

Aqua Expeditions small ship cruises offers Ripcord Rescue Travel Protection to provide emergency evacuation at no extra cost. Silversea Cruises has increased its staff of medical professionals on ships, added an infection control officer, began providing quarantined rooms for sick passengers that have separate ventilation from other cabins, and made agreements with hospitals and hotels around the world in case a passenger gets sick and wants to recover off-ship.

Silversea CEO Roberto Martinoli says guests have appreciated the company’s robust efforts and worst-case-scenario planning. The company’s passenger satisfaction reports are better than they’ve ever been before, even though “you can’t say you won’t have any cases," he said.

Attention, Parrotheads: The first Margaritaville cruise ships out this spring

Despite the risks involved, people are eager to get back to cruising.

“Cruise demand is very, very high right now,” says John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, a network of agencies with roughly 5,700 locations that describes itself as one of the largest sellers of cruise vacations in the world.

Lovell says his company is seeing traveler demand for cruises reaching pre-pandemic levels. Part of that consumer confidence comes from methodical procedures cruise lines have implemented to protect against on-board outbreaks. Between companies’ efforts like testing and vaccination requirements, reduced passenger capacity and re-designed food service, "they’ve invested millions and millions and millions of dollars to do this safely,” Lovell said.