CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — With COVID-19 infection rates hitting record rates in the U.S. this summer, the cruise industry continues to navigate these rough waters as travelers look forward to fall and winter vacations.
Despite mask mandates and travel restrictions continuing in some countries, Cruise Planners CEO Michelle Fee said the cruise industry is gearing up for more sailings in the months ahead.
A federal judge ruled in August that Norwegian Cruise Line can require their passengers departing from Florida must show vaccination status before boarding.
This comes after a Carnival cruise ship departed from Texas this summer had 27 positive COVID-19 cases and one passenger later died from the virus.
Carnival Cruise Line updated their requirements showing that as of Aug. 28 trips from all U.S. Atlantic and Gulf home ports that vaccine exemptions will be limited to children under the age of 12 and teenagers or adults with a medical condition prohibiting vaccination.
"By having a ship that has a high percent [of people vaccinated], and in Norwegian's case 100 percent vaccination rate, it really makes travelers have confidence [that the cruise is safe]," Fee said.
Fee said most cruise lines are requiring about 95 percent of passengers to be vaccinated on a trip. Some ships are leaving about 5 percent unvaccinated for families who may have children that aren't eligible for the shot.
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Despite some added measures of showing proof of vaccination and added safety measures, Fee said the recent cruise she took was generally the same as before the pandemic.
"Once I got on board, I felt like, 'Oh, my God, it's back. I'm here. I'm excited. Cruising did not change,'" Fee said. "Yes, there were some mask mandates in certain sections of the ship, but when you're eating or drinking or sitting outside, there wasn't any."
She said there may be areas of a ship where unvaccinated travelers cannot visit like certain restaurants.
Fee explained that for cruises sailing from Florida, the requirements have a lot to do with what the destinations are requiring.
As of Sept. 3, government leaders in the Bahamas announced they will only allowing cruises at their ports that can confirm all guests 12 and older are fully vaccinated and only medical exemptions apply.
Leaders in St. Thomas implemented the same requirement in effect until at least Nov. 1.
Fee said unvaccinated travelers on a ship docking in the Bahamas will no longer be able to board the vessel at the start of the trip, prompting the cruise line to refund the passengers for their trip.
"You wouldn't even be able to get on the ship, so cruise lines have had to go back to some of the passengers that are already booked and tell them, 'I'm really sorry, but you're not vaccinated,'" Fee said.
With the vast majority of people on board the cruise ship being vaccinated, Fee feels the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak is substantially low.
"It is probably one of the safest places you can be. You're actually in this little bubble," Fee said. "I think I'm safer there than going to the grocery store here in South Florida."
Overall she feels that cruise lines want passengers to feel like they are having the same experience they would have enjoyed before the pandemic.
"They want to make sure when you step onboard a ship that it is the same experience or even a little bit better now," Fee said.
Janine Phan is fully vaccinated and ready to leave on her first cruise since 2019. It will be her first vacation since the pandemic started.
"I'm excited. I've never been to Mexico. I'm glad that it's only 50 percent capacity," Phan said.
She said the only difference thus far has been the booking process.
"They are going to make sure we have a COVID test three days before [setting sail] and everybody will be vaccinated," Phan said.
All cruise lines are requiring COVID-19 testing prior to boarding.
Know your rights before setting sail
Local attorney Josh Ferraro said every passenger should thoroughly read their ticket information and know their rights.
"If you have any claim against a cruise line, there are very strict deadlines and we see people that are unaware of these deadlines and they lose their rights all the time," Ferraro said.
Fee said it’s also important to keep in mind that right now cruises are operating under cruise with confidence policies that allow you to cancel a booking for a full refund close to your sail date.
Ferraro added that it's important for passengers to know that a cruise captain can order you to isolate or evacuate a ship should you test positive for COVID-19.
"At the end of the day, under federal law, the captain has the ultimate authority over the ship, and so if the captain says you need to quarantine in your room, then that's exactly what you need to do or you can be in violation of federal law as well as Florida law," Ferraro said. "More importantly if the cruise captain says you’re required to evacuate the ship and they provide you with the means to do so, then that's absolutely what you need to do."
Fee said she expects the demand for travel in 2022 will outpace the supply as people continue to try to return to their normal lives.