(7 a.m. EST) -- No one has a crystal ball to know exactly what pandemic-era cruising in the US will look like when it resumes sometime after March 2021, but we can take an educated guess -- thanks to Royal Caribbean in Singapore.
Along with Genting’s World Dream, Royal Caribbean re-started cruising on December 1 from Singapore -- a country that has nearly eradicated COVID -- with three- and four-day cruises to nowhere, or "Ocean Getaways".
The island state's strict contact tracing and mask-wearing mandates for its residents create an ideal environment for cruising to resume, as Angie Stephen, managing director of Royal Caribbean, Asia Pacific, explains:
“The pilot cruises give us a valuable opportunity to reinvent the cruise experience in the new COVID-19 environment as we prepare for the eventual recovery of the cruise industry, while also allowing to support and sustain employment opportunities for our crew members during this time,” Stephen says.
She points out that the Singapore government designed the rigorous CruiseSafe Certification program to ensure a safe return to sailing and that it can act as a blueprint for other countries. Though of course ultimately, the CDC (through its COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate requirements), in concert with local governments and public health officials, will inform exactly how cruising in the US resumes.
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Here’s a look at Singapore cruising conventions that Royal Caribbean plans to likely to implement for US cruising when it resumes, as well as a look at what protocols will not be adapted for the US market.
Singapore Best Practices to be Permanent Features of US Cruising
No Self-Serve Buffet
The Windjammer Marketplace will not be a self-service buffet; instead staff will hand passengers plates and cutlery, and serve all food and drinks in order to create a touchless experience as much as possible.
Deep Cleaned Cabins
Enhanced cleaning services will become the norm on all sailings when cruises resume in the U.S.
Don't expect fresh fruit and those strawberries dipped in chocolate in your cabin -- hand sanitizer and a mask will be the new normal.
For contract tracing, passengers will be required to wear Royal Caribbean’s "Tracelet" watch-like wrist band at all times outside of one’s cabin.
As another layer of contact tracing, passengers will be required to tap their SeaPass ID card at points around the ship.
The E-Muster 2.0 system requires passengers watch a short how-to muster drill video via the Royal Caribbean phone app or on the cabin’s smart TV, in lieu of congregating en-masse at muster stations around the ship. Before the ship departs, passengers must visit their assembly station to verify with a crew member that they’ve completed the process.
To avoid waiting in lines and congregating, passengers will be expected to pre-book reservations for dining, entertainment and activities using the Royal Caribbean app on their phone.
Sailing at Reduced Capacity
The plan is to continue sailing at a reduced capacity, to facilitate social distancing, though not necessarily as low as 50 percent like Singapore.
Signage and floor mats around the ship will remind passengers to keep as socially distanced as possible.
Masks will be required on board when not eating, drinking and engaging in strenuous activity.
To encourage social distancing, some seating will be blocked off — for instance, in the casino, entertainment lounges and bars, and outside on the pool deck.
PCR Test Before Embarking
Currently, the every passenger and crew member will be required to test negative for COVID-19 prior to boarding and Royal Caribbean will cover the cost of the test for sailings departing on or before 18 March 2021. This policy seems likely to continue post March.
What's Not Being Adapted For the U.S. Cruise Market
TraceTogether Contact Tracing
This is a mandatory Singapore-based and designed contact tracing app that wouldn’t be applicable elsewhere.
Cruises to Nowhere
Because of cabotage laws that require foreign-flagged ships cruising from the US to visit at least one foreign port, US cruises to nowhere on Royal Caribbean’s foreign-flagged wouldn’t be possible.
Prohibition of COVID-19 Testing Within 180 Days of Having COVID
The Singapore government prohibits anyone who has had COVID-19 within the past 180 days, or who has had a positive COVID-19 Serology certificate, from going on a cruise, as taking a pre-cruise SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) test could throw up a positive result, even if the person is no longer contagious. For the US market, the CDC’s “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships” (October 30, 2020, update), states: “The cruise ship operator must conduct laboratory testing of all passengers and crew on the day of embarkation and the day of disembarkation in accordance with CDC technical instructions or orders. Laboratory test results must be available prior to passenger embarking and prior to passengers and crew departing for their final destinations after disembarking the ship.”
Rules and best practices for traveling and cruising in the COVID era continue to evolve, as case numbers fluctuate, and medical research develops. Travel in the COVID era is a moving target.
"Previously, we expected cruising to resume based on creating a virtual bubble of safety on a ship, even if the rest of the country was experiencing significant spread. Today we envision that the key, but not the exclusive factor, will be the vaccines rather than purely the protocols," says Stephen.
Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of the website QuirkyCruise.com. She was onboard Quantum of the Seas on behalf of Cruise Critic.