As cruise lines release their tentative plans for returning to the sea or river, one facet of post-COVID-19 cruising is emerging: Passengers might have to wear masks when they sail, at least some of the time.
Masks, whether homemade or medical grade, have become a staple of life in communities that have been affected by COVID-19. Many states and cities require people to wear masks in enclosed public areas, such as grocery stores, to protect others. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, face coverings can "slow the spread of the virus and help people who might have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.")
While the cruise lines are examining different health protocols, there's no getting around the fact that there are times on ships when it's hard to socially distance, which is a requirement by the CDC for sailing to resume. And those are the points where passengers might have to wear masks, cruise line executives say.
Already there are signs this will happen. In April, Royal Caribbean applied for a patent for "Seaface," described as "sanitary masks for virus isolation purposes." River cruise lines in Europe and the United States that plan to return to sailing in June say masks will be part of the experience.
In an interview with Cruise Critic earlier this month, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO and President Frank Del Rio said that, at least when ships first start sailing again, health precautions and rules will look very similar to what's happening on land.
"My guess is early on, there will be masks," he said.
First River Sailings Point the Way
Clues to how masks will be used on ships can be found in the plans put together by European and American river and small ship companies, which are resuming sailing as early as June 1.
Scylla, which operates German and international sailings, is slated to start June 1, with cruises on the Rhine River. The line, as well as A-ROSA, which caters to a similar German clientele, have stated that mouth and nose coverings will be required to be worn in public spaces.
On U.S. rivers, two cruise lines aim to have their boats -- all with less than 250 passengers and crew -- sailing by early this summer. American Cruise Lines aims to return June 20 on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, with American Song and on the Mississippi River on American Harmony, leaving June 28 from Memphis. American Queen Steamboat Company has also set a return date for the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as the Mississippi River, in July.
While masks for guests aren't called out specifically in the lines' health plans, the leaders of both river companies say that it's likely that they will have to be used, at least in some circumstances when passengers can't socially distance.
"I think it's very likely that we'll have to require it worn at certain times, like boarding and unboarding the buses. Places where it will be especially difficult to mandate that people are always 6 feet apart. Or when people are right at the gangway and it's likely that there'll be in close proximity to a crew member who's assisting them with something,” American Cruise Line President and CEO Charles B. Robertson said.
"But if people are just out on the sundeck for instance, in most cases, I think we would not require that they wear face masks then."
John Waggoner, CEO and President of American Queen Steamboat Company, agreed that masks might be part of the experience, at least in the beginning: "Masks have been shown to be very, very effective. It not only protects the person that might have the masks on, but it protects other people. My guess is yes, the majority of our guests and the majority of the crew members will probably have masks on board."
But wearing masks has become a controversial point on land, and the debate over whether people will want to wear them on cruises is equally divisive.
On the Cruise Critic forums, opinions vary, with many people, including those who love cruising and sail frequently, saying that wearing a mask is a deal-breaker.
"I don't relish the idea of wearing a mask anytime I step out my room," wintertexancruise wrote on a recent thread. "I wear them here for the stores, but I hate them with a passion and I don't like the idea of wearing one my whole vacation."
"I don't believe you're going to see passengers required to wear masks," graphicguy wrote. "If that is the case, no one is going to spend $1,000-$2,000-$3,000+ to go on a vacation and have to wear a mask. I think bookings would drop like a stone."
Others say that they would prefer to cruise if the lines take safety measures such as mask wearing in public places.
"I would be hesitant to go on a cruise that didn't require masks until the time comes that most have acquired immunity, either by surviving the disease or through a vaccine. Keep your germs to yourself!" wrote julig22.
While others agree with executives who note that as changes occur on land -- with masks often required in public places -- people at sea will also have to adjust.
"I think most of us who enjoy what cruising has to offer accept the fact that there will be significant changes. We can simply choose to go or not and that is OK," winterbliss wrote.
On the luxury and small ship end, travel agent Adam Martindale of Cruise Planners said he thought his clients who were already willing to travel early would comply.
"I think that wearing the mask while walking around the ship won't be an issue for most people. They can take it off when they go to the restaurant or to the bar," he said. "Especially if the cruise lines make something fun and interactive, which I'm sure they will."
What's important about any health or safety protocol surrounding COVID-19 is that scientists and health officials are learning more about the virus and the best efforts to contain it by the week -- and what we have to do now might change in the future.
In an interview with Cruise Critic, Carnival Corp. President and CEO Arnold Donald said that while he's not willing to commit to masks being required on board, "some guests will choose to do on their own." For the crew, it depends on timing and what the public health recommendations are.
"Obviously, wearing masks in certain places like the theater is probably not as taxing as trying to wear it during dinner when you're trying to eat," he said. "But we'll see what happens with all that. Society and people adapt. They figure things out."