Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, was never a fan of cruises. At least she thought she wasn’t. But after an enjoyable introduction to the world of cruising, indifference turned to love. At the moment, however, taking a cruise is not at the top of the doctor’s vacation wish list.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. After my first cruise I thought ‘This is the life.’ But I don’t think I’ll take another one for a long time,” she said. “Not because I’m afraid I’ll get COVID and die. But because I’m afraid of all of the really horrible logistical things that happen when you’re stuck on a boat and there’s a pandemic.”
She’s referring to the Diamond Princess, the ship that was stuck at sea in February 2020 as hundreds of passengers contracted the virus. We know much more about the virus now than we did 18 months ago and cruise ships have protocols in place to prevent such outbreaks. But she expressed hesitancy to get back on a ship, citing unknowns surrounding the Delta variant.
Doron, and other medical experts we spoke with, may not be in a rush to take a cruise, but that doesn’t seem to be the case among travelers. A survey taken last December by the trade organization Cruise Lines International Association found that nearly 75 percent of respondents were planning to cruise again. More recently, Carnival said bookings for upcoming cruises increased by 45 percent during March, April, and May as compared with the three previous months. When Royal Caribbean put out a call for volunteers to test new COVID-19 protocols on trial cruises, more than 250,000 enthusiastic fans applied.
Josh Tolkin, vice president of World Travel Holdings in Wilmington, which owns Vacation Outlet and other brands, said as more ships return to service, reservations for cruises are slowly rebounding. He said pent-up demand from enthusiasts who have been stuck on land for more than a year is fueling the push and predicts that cruising will be back to pre-pandemic levels by spring 2022. He contends that cruises are currently one of the safest forms of leisure travel.
“If you go into Fenway Park, or a restaurant, you will most likely be with people who have COVID,” Tolkin said. “But because it’s not being tested or reported, people are not cognizant of it. And even when the cruise lines report cases of COVID, the percentage of passengers who test positive is incredibly low with respect to the amount of people on the ships.”
Nearly all cruise lines currently require proof of vaccination to sail, and, as per CDC guidelines, even vaccinated passengers need to wear masks while inside the ship. The CDC also recommends that people who are not vaccinated forgo taking a cruise until they are vaccinated. But the exception to the vaccination rule is Florida, and that’s what has many in the medical community worried.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has blocked businesses from mandating that customers be vaccinated, a rule which extends to cruise companies as well. As a result, cruises departing from Florida can require passengers be tested, but not vaccinated. DeSantis’s decision has been upheld in state court rulings. What’s frustrating for cruise companies is that Florida has three of the busiest cruise ports in the country. It also has one of the highest COVID positivity rates in the United States.
Katherine Gergen Barnett, vice chair of primary care at Boston Medical Center, doesn’t sound as bullish as Tolkin on the topic of cruise ship safety, particularly when factoring in the virulent Delta variant.
“What we know about [Delta] is shifting by the hour,” Barnett said. “I think that speaks volumes about the strength of Delta. But if people are going to take a cruise and are looking at ways to keep themselves safe, I think going on a cruise line that requires vaccination for all people, requires COVID testing, and is not departing out of Florida, would be the best choice.”
Barnett said if you haven’t made vacation plans yet, a trip that involves spending time outside and minimizes time around others might be more advisable. She isn’t against the idea of travel, but said she would be more comfortable seeing people staying away from enclosed spaces for an extended period of time. in other words, not taking a cruise.
“Think about a cruise at a time where we really can get a much larger proportion of our country vaccinated,” she said. “Thinking about where can you get to safely where the rates of COVID-19 are not high, where you can spend lots of time outdoors, and where you can be with people you love safely would be my plan.”
Another area where experts are expressing concern is the presence children under the age of 12 on cruises. Mark Cameron, an associate professor of population and quantitative health sciences at Case Western Reserve University, said family cruises present many uncertainties. Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, cases are soaring in Florida, a state where families would likely board their cruise. Like Barnett, he recommends looking into cruises that are not departing from Florida.
“It’s not just the vaccinated adults alongside the unvaccinated adults that could be an issue,” Cameron said. “Sure, vaccinated adults are going to be a very low risk of contracting the virus and be hospitalized for it. But with unvaccinated children it’s a whole different ball game. People who are vaccinated can still spread the virus to others. In the end it’s a highly personal decision.”
However, those who are familiar with the industry have faith that cruise companies have worked out the necessary protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus. As a result, a repeat of the catastrophe of the Diamond Princess, or even a much smaller passenger spread, is very unlikely. Robert Kwortnik Jr., a professor of communications at Cornell University who specializes in tourism and travel, said in many ways cruises have been on the forefront of health and sanitation. Long before coronavirus, hand sanitizing stations were the norm and crews were regularly wiping down high-touch surfaces in public areas to ward off norovirus.
Kwortnik said if given the opportunity he’d jump at the opportunity to take a cruise.
“I’m pretty well informed because it’s an area that I study,” he said. “I look at what’s going on and I feel very confident. In fact, I’d feel more confident going on a cruise tomorrow than going into my local grocery store. I’m in upstate New York. We have an indoor mask mandate, and I went into the store this morning and half the people there weren’t wearing a mask. At least on a cruise ship mask wearing is enforced.”
Kwortnik said he’s also confident about safety because cruise companies are under heightened scrutiny, more so than airlines or hotels, and another disaster would sink any chance of a recovery. Despite everything the industry has endured, even in the face of the ever-growing Delta variant, he said he thinks the cruising will bounce back within a year.
“Historically travelers have a somewhat short memory,” he said. “Post-9/11 people were scared to death of getting on airplanes. By the following year air travel had rebounded to the prior levels. The industry is going to bounce back. I’m actually really optimistic that it will come back stronger. Some of the things that cruise companies have been put into place will create a better experience.”