Alaska News

Cruise lines navigate complex rules as Alaska sailings resume

SEATTLE — It’s a sight Seattle hasn’t seen in a while: lines of vacationers at Pier 91, many dressed in Hawaiian shirts, bucket hats and sunglasses, with suitcases and smiles. The Majestic Princess floats on their left, the Serenade of Seas to the right.

Under sunny skies, the first Alaska cruise of the season — and the first since the onset of the pandemic — weighed anchor Monday as Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas set off on a seven-night voyage.

The long anticipated return of cruising in Seattle continues this month as six other cruise lines resume sailing, among them Seattle-based Holland America Line and Princess Cruises. Starting Friday, ships will leave Seattle almost daily for the rest of the month. In August, some days will see two departures.

“We’ve been waiting two years now to go to Alaska,” said Peter Dorney, 52, one of the first people in line with his wife, Kathy, 51, waiting to board the Serenade on Monday morning. The Massachusetts couple is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year and Dorney said they have been on more than 20 cruises. “We’re frequent cruisers.”

But Monday’s resumption also highlights the complexities of cruising in the current stage of the global pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks cruise lines to decide whether they’ll require 95% of a ship’s passengers to be vaccinated, thereby qualifying as a “vaccinated cruise.” Depending on that decision, there are guidelines for mask use, social distancing and testing.

Royal Caribbean chose not to meet the 95% threshold for sailings of the Serenade of the Seas. That doesn’t mean the guests aren’t vaccinated; in fact, every person who is eligible for a vaccine must have gotten one.

The nuance in Royal Caribbean’s decision lies in the cruise line’s decision to accept unvaccinated children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine in the United States. Few other ships are permitting unvaccinated children on board.

For a voyage to be considered a “vaccinated cruise,” the CDC requires that 95% of passengers and also 95% of the crew be fully vaccinated 14 days before boarding.

On those cruises, fully vaccinated passengers do not need to wear masks anywhere. They do not need to maintain social distance. There’s no requirement for testing.

The CDC also says crew members who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. However, most cruise lines leaving Seattle are requiring crew members to wear them, at least for initial voyages.

“You’re kind of at herd immunity on board,” said Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line. “On board, it’s like a bubble.”

The alternative, or the decision not to require a high vaccination rate for passengers and crew, requires all guests and crew members to wear masks indoors, except in designated “vaccinated zones,” where only vaccinated guests are allowed.

Most ships leaving Seattle are pursuing the “vaccinated cruise” route. This includes Holland America’s NieuwAmsterdam, Princess Cruises’ Majestic Princess, and Carnival’s Miracle.

While the Serenade of the Seas will not clear the 95% vaccination threshold, the cruise line is still requiring passengers 16 and older to have been vaccinated. In August, it will require vaccines for passengers 12 and older. All crew members are fully vaccinated.

Jay Schneider, chief product innovation officer at Royal Caribbean Group, said the decision to allow unvaccinated children on board — hence preventing the ship from clearing the 95% vaccination threshold — was made largely to maintain the brand’s focus on family travel.

Royal Caribbean is still simulating the “vaccinated cruise” experience in many areas of the ship, especially those where children aren’t otherwise allowed. This includes the casino, specific dining rooms, pubs, lounges and certain events where guests can remain mask-free indoors.

For Princess Cruises, it was “absolutely torturous” to decide not to allow unvaccinated children on board, said Lisa Syme, a vice president at Princess who has been with the company for 38 years. Especially given the cruise line’s efforts in recent years to be a family-focused brand, “that was a particular heartbreaker for us.”

For unvaccinated passengers, some earlier precautions instituted during the pandemic remain.

They must be tested for the coronavirus at the port before boarding the ship. For voyages longer than four days, they must be tested again upon returning before they disembark, per CDC guidelines.

Royal Caribbean will place unvaccinated passengers in specific shore excursions when exploring destinations. Holland America is mandating that unvaccinated passengers — who won’t be children, but rather people with medical exceptions — do the same, and wear a mask at nearly all times indoors on the ship, except when eating.

Bhupesh Singh, 44, who was boarding the Serenade of the Seas on Monday with his wife, Hansi, and their two unvaccinated children — both are under 12 — said he felt comfortable with Royal Caribbean’s approach, even with the extra precautions he’d have to take travelling with kids. He noted that he brought his family to cruise from Seattle, where Royal Caribbean at least requires all adults to be vaccinated. In Florida, where he’s from, that isn’t the case.

The reduced capacity on board the Serenade of the Seas was also encouraging for Singh. Royal Caribbean declined to say exactly how many passengers it will have on board, but said it would be “much lower” than full capacity, which is typically almost 2,500 people. Holland America and Princess Cruises said they will be starting their Alaskan cruises at approximately 60% capacity, moving up gradually over the course of the season.

Some cruise lines will also be using technology to trace passengers’ location. Royal Caribbean will be using “tracelets,” or wristbands that passengers must wear in order to be tracked on board. Princess Cruises will be using medallions, portable devices used for various functions on board the ship, which will keep a log of who passengers come in contact with.

Physically, the cruise lines say the layout of the ships remains nearly identical to what passengers are used to. Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas will be spacing out dining tables and casino machines. Holland America and Princess Cruises said their lines don’t plan to make any such modifications.

All cruise lines say they have made significant upgrades to their HVAC systems, investing heavily in air-filtration systems that bring in fresh air and don’t recycle air on the ship. And they tout their new cleaning protocols, which they say are more thorough and sanitary than before.

Cruise lines should be considering the delta variant, said Janet Baseman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. The variant is more contagious than its predecessors and has sent coronavirus infections spiking again nationwide, increasing the chance that a passenger could contract the delta variant. The risk is also likely to increase if cruise ships have older passengers on board.

Baseman added that cruise ships had a “known history of infectious disease outbreaks” even before the coronavirus pandemic, given that a fixed group of people mix in close quarters with each other.

Despite her concerns, Baseman said the plans outlined by cruises departing from Seattle — with their required high rates of vaccination — were consistent with the reopening plans of the rest of the United States. “It’s hard for me to think what more they would be able to do.”

She said if she found herself in an environment where she knew with certainty that at least 95% of the people around her were fully vaccinated, she would feel comfortable removing her mask indoors, as long as she didn’t have any symptoms.

Regardless of what policy cruise lines put forth, “people need to be self-aware, and they’ve got to take their own precautions,” said Singh.

When asked if he’s worried about the delta variant, Dorney said, “It’s gonna be what it is … Just take the precautions you can take and and then, you know, live your life.”

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