ABOARD THE ROTTERDAM -- I climbed aboard Holland America Line's new Rotterdam expecting a lax mask culture. That's not what I found.
I checked into the Rotterdam mid-cruise as it called in Bergen, Norway, catching a lift on the second half of a seven-day cruise ahead of the ship's naming ceremony in Rotterdam in the Netherlands on May 30.
As I explored the 2,668-passenger ship for the first time, roaming its 12 decks with guests mid-voyage, I was surprised to find a discipline for mask-wearing I haven't seen since the omicron variant of Covid-19 tore through the public consciousness early this year.
While crew members wore masks, as I had seen on every other ship I've been on during the pandemic, passengers surprisingly dutifully wore masks in most places, like when trying their luck at the slot machines in the casino and watching a quartet sing songs of the ages in the World Stage theater.
As I stood in the back of the standing-room-only B. B. King's Blues Club that night, and later the Rolling Stone Rock Room, some guests were still wearing masks while tapping their feet to the rhythms, even with a drink in front of them. One woman wearing a mask gleefully danced in her seat in the front row.
This mask discipline, according to Wessel Oorschot, hotel general manager for the Rotterdam, was born of an "unlucky" development. Like other HAL ships, masks were only recommended on its last voyage. During that cruise, the ship saw an increase in cases among guests and some crew members.
Management then instituted a mask mandate on the ship, although guests in areas like the indoor pool, outdoor spaces and seated dining areas were often maskless.
"We want to make sure we don't have it carry over one cruise after another. I'll say, this cruise we are doing extremely well," Oorschot said. "We have almost zeroed out transmission."
Mask-wearing was optional on my last cruise three weeks ago aboard the Azamara Onward in the Mediterranean. While guests were expected to wear masks on tenders and tours, masks were optional on-ship to everyone but the crew.
"It is still one of the safest places," Oorschot said about cruises. "Can I guarantee you 100% that you will not be in contact with someone who is potentially positive? No, I cannot. No one can unless you stay at home with no contact."
Mask policies have generally relaxed across the cruise industry as the severity of Covid-19 variants has eased and the CDC lowered its masking requirements. As of February, cruise lines were no longer required to mandate passengers wear masks to comply with the CDC standards under the Covid-19 Program for Cruise Ships operating in U.S. waters, leaving that discretion to cruise ships.
Crew members on the Rotterdam are tested every two weeks on a weekly rotation, or immediately if he or she develops any symptom, Oorschot said. While the chances of hospitalization are lower under the current variant, positive cases also introduce logistical challenges for the line.
"Of course, a lot of our guests are a little bit older," Rotterdam's cruise and travel director Karlijn Varpalen said. "For them, it could possibly be more severe symptoms."
Crew members testing positive for Covid must stay off the floor for a minimum of six days until they test negative. For guests, Holland America will isolate Covid-positive guests and crew in negative-pressure cabins. The line will then disembark guests to partner hotels, arrange their transportation and pay for their food bill at $100 per diem.
That's even more complicated for American guests who need to test negative to fly back to the U.S., stretching out that timeline.
It is unclear how long the mask mandate will last.
"We still have people who are not happy because they have to wear a mask," Verpalen said.