MARITIME EXECUTIVE – With fears rising as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads rapidly, ports have once again begun to reject cruise ships hearkening back to the situation in March 2020. The cruise lines for their part continue to say that their protocols are working with the outbreaks generally limited at most to one or two percent of the population aboard, but they are also moving to enhance their onboard restrictions due to the fast-moving new variant.
The latest situation began earlier this week when the Caribbean Island nations of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire all denied permission to cruise ships to dock in their ports after they were informed that the ship had cases of the virus aboard. In Europe, MSC Cruises also put on hold scheduled Northern European cruises in the Baltic region due to increased restrictions and health protocols in many of the ports. MSC said it plans to restart that cruise program in mid-January while cruises are continuing as scheduled in other areas, including the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and from Dubai.
Health officials from Curacao told the local newspaper the Curacao Chronicle that they felt the percentage of the number of infections was too high while noting that it was also rising rapidly. The newspaper quoted epidemiologist Dr. Gerstenbluth saying, “The day before yesterday, 18 crew members were positive, yesterday 36, and this morning there were 51,” describing the situation aboard the Odyssey of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship that was denied permission to dock. Neighboring Aruba made the same decision for the Odyssey of the Seas and also denied Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Freedom after the ship reported COVID cases among its crew. Bonaire has also turned away the Carnival cruise ship.
Royal Caribbean International confirmed that during routine tests aboard their cruise ship, 55 passengers and crew members tested positive for COVID-19 during a cruise that departed Port Everglades on December 18. The cruise line noted that all 1,599 crew aboard are vaccinated and 95 percent of the 3,587 passengers are also vaccinated and tested negative before the cruise’s departure. All but a handful of the cases appear to be among the crew, but everyone who tested positive is quarantined aboard the cruise ship. The day after the cruise began, the ship had also briefly returned to Florida to disembark a passenger that tested positive along with close contacts.
Faced with the new outbreaks and the fact that the new variant is more transmissible, the cruise lines have also raised their level of restrictions. The major firms announced that they would be enforcing requirements for masking onboard and vaccinations. Royal Caribbean and several other cruise lines have also suspended smoking in their casinos, generally the only indoor space that permits smoking, saying that it goes against the need to use masks. Travel industry trade magazine Travel Weekly is also reporting that Royal Caribbean has stopped accepting additional reservations for some upcoming cruises to limit passenger capacity and permit for better social distancing aboard its ships.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told USA Today that it is investigating the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 reported by the cruise lines. Last week, before the current cases on the Odyssey of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International also reported 48 cases aboard another of its cruise ships, the Symphony of the Seas. All the major cruise lines are reporting what appears to be an increasing number of breakthrough cases. MSC Cruises’ MSC Seashore operating from Miami reported 28 cases among vaccinated passengers and crew last week and on Monday, Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 arrived in New York after a week-long Atlantic crossing with 10 passengers testing positive despite being vaccinated and tested prior to departure from England.