by Dedra Jize, OT., CSA
Geriatric Care Manager, Litherland, Kennedy & Associates, APC, Attorneys at Law
My husband and I are those people who have loved cruising for decades. We enjoy getting snippets of foreign lands and only unpacking once. We usually meet fun and interesting people and love the culinary delights both on the ship as well as on land. We had signed up for an Australian cruise for December 2020 but then Covid-19 hit earlier that year and all plans for cruising vanished for us, until now.
With vaccines and health and safety protocols in place to help passengers and crew stay safe and healthy, we decided to ‘test the waters’ with a Caribbean cruise in December 2021, one that we have done several times so that we didn’t care about possible restrictions or whatever would be different due to Covid-19. Our expectations were low, just wanted a getaway in the sun.
I’m not writing as a cruise critic, evaluating the cruise line, the service, the food, or anything like that. I want to give you a glimpse into the current cruising protocols so you can decide if now is the time for you to ‘test the waters’ for yourself and what to expect.
Covid-19 Vaccinations: We had to be fully vaccinated (12 year and older) and had to submit the dates that we received the vaccines on-line. A passenger had to complete the second shot 2 weeks before sailing. The paper Vaccination Card is also shown when boarding.
Covid-19 Test: I stressed-out on this one because I read a negative test result for PCR or antigen test must be taken no more than 2 days before boarding. I mistakenly thought this meant that with a Sunday sail date, I had to take the test on Friday (we flew out at 7am on Friday…where were we going to test?). They actually mean the test must be taken 2 days before the day of boarding meaning that a Thursday test for a Sunday boarding was fine. But what if I didn’t get the test results back in time? I went to two places that Thursday to assure one will come in on time. Thankfully I did that because I could not access one of my test results. But what if I couldn’t or didn’t take the test, then they will give a test at the port (for a fee). There is also a Health Questionnaire that must be completed only on the day before the cruise and submitted on-line (through the App).
Masks: Mask requirements will change according to ‘the times’ and cruise line. We had to wear our masks when indoors or at ports. It really wasn’t any different than what we currently do here in the Bay Area. When dining or drinking, then masks are off and usually stayed off. The staff wore masks at all times.
Elevators: Although the signs read “6 Passengers Maximum”, we did see more than 6 passengers in elevators together. In my experience, when we stopped at a new floor, the new people would politely ask to join the elevator. Then those on would either consent or refuse. No one minded a refusal if someone was uncomfortable.
Dining: At all dining areas, no matter where on the ship, everyone checks in with name and room number. This is a way to trace people in case of exposure. Except for the main dining room, you had to wash your hands at the washing stations right there before dining; and yes, there was someone there to be sure you did. In the main dining room, I saw no social distancing; however, the dining room had 3 floors and two of them were for vaccinated guests only and the third for unvaccinated (like families with young children). At the buffets, some tables were ‘closed’ to allow for distancing but basically, it looked ‘normal’. Also, for buffets, I wasn’t expecting to be able to grab my own food…wrong. There were some items that were handed to you by a server but for the most part, serve yourself was still in use. For room service, it was discouraged by offering a limited menu for breakfast and additional fees for all other times of the day.
Ports of call/Getting off the ship: The protocol for this varies depending on the port and their requirements. First, at the cruise line’s private island, everyone, regardless of vaccination, were allowed off. For our itinerary, different islands had different rules. One island let everyone just walk off the ship regardless of vaccination status, another would only allow the unvaccinated (usually children) off if they were part of the cruise line excursion, but the vaccinated could walk off on their own. I have heard that some locations will only let people off if part of an excursion so please check prior to booking for your own itineraries. Once off the ship, all our ports of call required masks when entering any building.
Medications/doctor: Many people want to avoid using the ship’s doctor because of the cost, even for something minor. But now, they want to encourage people to see their doctor if there is any hint of Covid-19. The way they do this is by offering free checkups for symptoms and then any Covid-19 related services or medications are at no cost to the guest. In addition, you can’t find the usual pain medications (i.e.: Aspirin, Advil, Tylenol) or cold medications in the store that sells sundries. They want you checked out by a doctor, and I would assume to get a Covid test.
The App/Smart Phone: Downloading their App was strongly encouraged prior to sailing (even if you don’t purchase/get their Wi-Fi package). Do you remember those days of going to your Muster Drill and everyone wearing their life jacket? Well, no more. You now watch a video on the app and check-in with a crew member at your station; it’s super easy. My issue is that the life jackets are no longer stored in your cabin closet…I have no idea where they are. The App does have a lot of great information and access to your portfolio (because it’s not on the TV anymore). It can even open my cabin door. I had thought prior to the cruise that the App would do everything to make it a ‘touch-free’ sailing. Where it failed was that I could not use it to purchase anything on the ship, that still required the room key to be passed back and forth to the crew member. Unfortunately, I needed to keep both my room key and my phone on me throughout the cruise.
Social Distancing: It is talked about a lot and some signage about it and some efforts are made to accommodate some distancing but for the most part, it didn’t happen (how can you keep 4,500 people separated?). The boarding process was as much of ‘herding’ process as usual (unless you booked a suite) with some regards to distancing once inside the building. Waiting to be seated in the dining room had long lines at times and no one was 6 feet apart. Some venues for shows were only for vaccinated quests and people are packed in as much a pre-Covid-19. If I attended a show specifically for the unvaccinated, they had seats blocked off for distancing.
Around the ship: Basically, I didn’t notice any changes except that now there are hand sanitizer dispensers all over the place. I had expected to see more (or even some) cleaning/sanitizing of railings and buttons where people touch a lot. There was continual sanitizing of the of escalator/stair rails down at the embarkation doors during days at port; other than that, no visible change. Our room was cleaned twice daily as usual.
Some of you may say, “Why in the world would you go on a cruise at these times, are you crazy?” Others are saying, “I have already been on 4 cruises since Covid -19”. If you are like me and have the travel and/or cruise bug, then you may find the risk worth it. My husband and I are both low risk for health conditions, we are vaccinated and boosted, and we took appropriate precautions to help us feel safe and comfortable in our cruise experience. My husband and I are ready to cruise again, but not yet to anywhere too far such as Europe, Asia, or Australia. It’s not that we would feel unsafe on the cruise, it is because each country has their own restrictions and different statistics of Covid-19 cases that are too fluid right now.
Note: Covid-19 safety protocols are often changing so please check directly with your cruise line for current information and requirements.