Cruise lines adapt to rising Covid cases in Australia

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About 800 people on the Majestic Princess tested positive during a 12-day sailing in November.
About 800 people on the Majestic Princess tested positive during a 12-day sailing in November. Photo Credit: Princess Cruises

As cruising resumes in Australia, so has navigating how to operate during a Covid outbreak.

Several cruise ships sailing out of Australia have reported a significant number of Covid cases onboard as the continent weathers a new wave of the virus.

Some 800 people on the Majestic Princess tested positive during a 12-day sailing last month that ended in Sydney. Two weeks later, the Grand Princess canceled a call to Newcastle during a roundtrip sailing out of Melbourne, citing elevated numbers of Covid cases onboard and high community transmission in the area.

Cunard's Queen Elizabeth left Sydney on a 17-day sailing in mid-November only to skip a port of call in Bali, Indonesia, after discovering a high number of guests had tested positive for Covid. The ship cut short its sailing and arrived in Freemantle in Western Australia two days early.

The high number of Covid cases onboard were reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. In March 2020, hundreds of people infected with Covid were allowed to disembark in Sydney from the Ruby Princess, which led to a spread of the virus in Australia. An investigation later blamed New South Wales health officials for allowing guests to leave the ship. 

Following the outbreak on the Majestic Princess, Carnival Corp. instituted a mask mandate for all its ships sailing in the region. The mandate includes Princess, Carnival Cruise Line, Cunard, Holland America Line, Seabourn and P&O Cruises. 

Masks are now required in public indoor spaces unless the guest is eating or drinking, outdoors when physical distancing cannot be maintained, during embarkation and debarkation, on buses and water shuttles and indoors on shore excursions. 

The Covid situation in Australia puts cruise companies between a rock and a hard place, said Mike Estill, COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies.

Despite the fact that travelers don't want to wear masks on vacation, he said, no one likes the idea of passengers inadvertently passing on the virus. 

"They gotta try. They can't act like it doesn't matter," Estill said about the outbreaks.

The masking requirement wasn't universal in the region. As of Nov. 30, lines like Royal Caribbean International and Silversea Cruises were recommending but not requiring guests to wear masks. Celebrity Cruises was requiring crew to wear masks, but guests did not have to. 

Carnival Corp. said it plans to reassess the mask requirement once the wave of Covid cases subsides in Australia. The rate of hospitalizations is beginning to taper off, according to health statistics from the Australian government.

"There needs to be flexibility, because it's not a virus that is just going to completely die out," said Dr. Peter Rebeiro, director of the epidemiology graduate program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Is this something that we'll have to continue to deal with? Yes."

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