The US cruise industry was just starting to get back to normal when the omicron variant came along and rocked the boat.
Over the weekend, passengers who had expected to spend their holidays on sunny Caribbean islands found themselves holed up inside cruise ships due to covid-19 outbreaks. One passenger on a Carnival cruise forced to bypass Bonaire after a “small number” of people tested positive for covid-19 described the experience as sailing on a “petri dish.” A Royal Caribbean International cruise that set sail from Fort Lauderdale reported 55 fully vaccinated passengers and crew tested positive for the virus on Dec. 23, forcing the ship to forgo planned stops Curaçao and Aruba and head back to Florida.
As Dec. 27, at least four US cruise ships had reported covid-19 outbreaks on board, leading the vessels to be turned away from docking at foreign ports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is monitoring outbreaks on over 90 cruise ships, raised its warning to the highest level on Dec. 30 and advised people to avoid cruise travel regardless of vaccination status.
The outbreaks provide a window into how Americans are calculating public health risks two weary years into the pandemic, as a new and more contagious variant threatens the recovery.
The cruise industry had to do a fair amount of damage control after covid-19 outbreaks left thousands of passengers stranded at sea back in early 2020. Passengers on Holland America’s MS Zaandam cruise ship sued the operator and its parent company, Carnival Corp., after more than 100 were infected and four died during a covid-19 outbreak that left the ship temporarily stranded in the Panama Canal.
The CDC soon restricted cruise ship operations through January of this year, and during that time the industry lost an estimated $32 billion. Major cruise operators like Royal Caribbean assembled panels of experts to develop new public health guidance for ships in light of the pandemic. When US cruises resumed travel in June, most implemented vaccine mandates for passengers and crews.
Those new protocols appeared to boost public perception and business for the industry. In a Harris Poll survey conducted this spring, most Americans said they were more likely to take a cruise if the line required covid-19 vaccines for all crew and passengers.
In a separate August survey, 49% of respondents deemed likely to take a cruise told US News they planned to set sail in the next 12 months, compared with 37% the year before. Likewise, Carnival Corp. reported in November that bookings for the second half of 2022 surpassed bookings for 2019.
Many public health experts maintain that there is inherent risk to taking a cruise right now, and it’s up to passengers to decide how much risk they’re willing to assume if they want to set sail while covid cases are on the rise.
But cruise ship executives argue they’re in a better place than ever to deal with an outbreak on board. “The ship environment is no longer a disadvantage,” Richard Fain, the CEO of Royal Caribbean told the New York Times in July. “It’s an advantage because unlike anywhere else, we are able to control our environment, which eliminates the risks of a big outbreak.”
Even with the omicron variant now circulating widely, some Americans still agree with this line of thinking. “It’s probably just as safe as going to the local grocery store,” Kim Parker, who recently sailed on the Royal Caribbean cruise with 55 infected passengers, told the Sun Sentinel. Another passenger on the ship told the newspaper she had booked another cruise for February, and had no plans to cancel it.
There are plenty of Americans who will avoid cruises given these recent outbreaks, but it’s clear that some are still willing to assume the risk. If you’re going to spend time in a petri dish, it might as well be one with a waterslide?