Royal Caribbean, Carnival Tout Safety After CDC Warning to Stay Off Cruise Ships

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning Thursday that people should avoid cruise ships because of the risk for COVID infection while onboard, Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines released statements highlighting the health and safety standards they are held to, and insisting cruises pose no higher risk than other forms of travel.

The CDC cautioned travelers, no matter their vaccination status, about taking cruises as Omicron cases continue to rise across the country, saying the department currently has at least 90 cruise ships under investigation or observation because of COVID cases.

Before the CDC warning, Royal Caribbean Group released a statement saying that in their observations, Omicron is causing people to cancel their trips and ships are changing onboard event schedules but is causing "significantly less severe symptoms than earlier variants."

It also said since they began offering cruises again in the spring, over 1.1 million people have taken cruises on its ships and a total of 1,745 people have tested positive for COVID, a rate of just under 0.16 percent.

In addition, Carnival Cruise Line spokesman Roger Frizzell told The Associated Press the company has no plans to alter or cancel their cruises following the CDC recommendation.

"Our enhanced health and safety protocols have proven to be effective time and time again over the past year," Frizzell said.

CDC, Cruise Ships, COVID, Omicron Variant
The Royal Caribbean Anthem of the Seas cruise ship is prepared for its next voyage as it is docked on Dec. 24, 2021, in Bayonne, New Jersey. The CDC announced Thursday that Americans should avoid taking trips on cruise ships because of the rise in Omicron variant COVID cases, and the transmissibility of the variant among even those who are vaccinated. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

The CDC did not disclose the number of infections on the cruise ships it's investigating.

"The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high," even if people are fully vaccinated and have received a booster, the CDC said.

The Cruise Lines International Association said it was disappointed with the new recommendations, saying the industry was singled out despite the fact it follows stricter health protocols than other travel sectors.

The decision "is particularly perplexing considering that cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard," a statement said. "The majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore."

In March 2020, as the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., the CDC put a halt to all cruises for what turned out to be 15 months. Last June, it allowed ships to resume sailing under new strict new conditions.

In August, as the Delta variant surged, the agency warned people who are at risk of severe illness despite being vaccinated not to go on cruises.

The CDC on Thursday also recommended that passengers get tested and quarantine for five days after docking, regardless of their vaccination status and even if they have no symptoms.

Omicron has sent cases skyrocketing to unprecedented levels across the U.S., including Florida, the hub of the nation's cruise industry. The state set another record this week for new daily cases, with more than 58,000 recorded Wednesday.

U.S. cruise lines have not announced any plans to halt trips, though vessels have been denied entry at some foreign ports.

Royal Caribbean said that 41 people required hospitalization, and that no passengers hit with Omicron had been taken to the hospital.

"We don't like to see even one case, but our experience is a fraction of the comparable statistics of virtually any other comparable location or industry. Few businesses are subject to such intense scrutiny, regulation and disclosure requirements by so many authorities," said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean.

Most cruise lines require adult passengers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Ships are allowed to relax measures such as mask use if at least 95 percent of passengers and 95 percent of crew are fully vaccinated.

Iris Krysty, 76, of Hamburg, New Jersey, and her husband are supposed to leave on a 10-day Caribbean cruise Jan. 19. This latest CDC warning leaves travelers like them in an unfair bind, she told the AP. Krysty was told Thursday they can only get a refund if they test positive before the trip. So, they will go to avoid losing thousands of dollars — a decision their daughter and son-in-law are not happy with.

"I know they're upset about us going but that's a lot of money for us to lose," Krysty said. "As far as we know, we're going and hope we'll be OK."

Janine Calfo, 55, of Salt Lake City, put off a four-day Carnival cruise from Long Beach, California, to Ensenada, Mexico, earlier this month when she got a breakthrough case of COVID-19 three days before departure. She rebooked the cruise for February and is still set on going.

"This is my own personal opinion, but it looks like the Omicron is going to be a quick burn," Calfo, who is asthmatic and plans to get the booster in a couple of weeks, told the AP. "My cruise is over 40 days away."

She added, though: "I think I will plan on getting travel insurance this time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.