The major cruise lines that operate from ports in the United States operate under foreign flags. That’s largely to avoid American labor laws because U.S. rules would require minimum wages, certain working conditions, and other things that would make operating economics a major challenge for Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) – Get Carnival Corporation Report, Royal Caribbean International (RCL) – Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) – Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report.
That’s not a criticism of the three major cruise lines’ operating model. They pay well for the markets they recruit most of their workers from and create economic opportunities for their crew members. Not being U.S. businesses, however, despite being headquartered in the United States made the cruise industry more vulnerable to government control during the worst of the pandemic.
At no point was air travel banned in the U.S. nor did trains, busses, or hotels stop operating by federal mandate. Cruise lines, however, were shut down from March 2020 through July 2021 despite the industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars to show it could operate safely (or at least more safely than many land-based businesses which were shut down).
Even as Americans returned to indoor dining, packed concert venues, and sold out sporting events, the cruise lines could not operate because they fell under the control of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That created a huge problem for Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian which, for over a year, could not operate in any fashion.
That changed in July when the CDC offered very strict conditions for a return to sailing and the three big cruise lines resumed operations from U.S. ports. It has been a very slow ramp up but now, the CDC has not only moved from its mandatory conditional sailing order to a voluntary one (that Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian have all opted into), it has slowly rolled back its rules.
The CDC Makes Another Major Cruise Rule Change
While masks have been optional in most the U.S. for quite a while, the cruise lines required them in a variety of indoor venues until March. The actual rules varied based on the current covid levels — sometimes masks were not required at all in certain venues and at others they were mandatory except when eating or drinking while stationary.
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The rules have been a bit of a moving target but the CDC has once again made a change that favors the cruise industry. It may seem like a small change, but it’s actually a big deal for Royal Caribbean and Carnival specifically which have a large family clientele.
CDC rules have required the cruise lines to make sure that 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated. The problem is that the vaccinated number includes kids over 5. All adults who sail must be vaccinated, but that was not required of kids. That, however, meant that ships could only accommodate a limited number of unvaccinated kids.
Now, the CDC has lowered that threshold to 90% which should allow the cruise lines to operate normally as it would be very rare for more than 10% of passengers to be under age 12. Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian do consider passengers 12 and over to be “adults” who must be vaccinated.
Cruising Moves Closer to Pre-Pandemic Normal
As the CDC has loosened its rules, taking a cruise has slowly moved closer to being the same experience it was before the pandemic. Now, most of the altered experience comes before your cruise (assuming you’re not traveling with unvaccinated kids).
All passengers must still provide a negative covid test taken no more than two days before the day their cruise departs. All passengers 12 and over must also provide proof of vaccination.
Masks are no longer required onboard for passengers, though they remain recommended for unvaccinated kids. In addition, recent federal rule changes have made masks optional in the terminal while boarding — an important change when it comes having the cruise experience feel like it did before the pandemic.
Now, the only real question is when will vaccine and testing requirements change. That’s not something the CDC has issued any guidance on (and it’s likely still quite a ways away).