Next week marks the two-year anniversary of a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown and the unofficial start of the pandemic in the United States. Being onboard Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas with thousands of other unmasked passengers and children this week has been an overall uplifting experience, if not a bit of a culture shock.
“We’re not saying the return to cruising anymore, because we’re officially back,” Mark Tamis, SVP of Hotel Operations for Royal Caribbean International, said in a press briefing on Friday. “We’re back to bold — today feels like cruising as usual, doesn’t it?”
As we watched cruisers undergo quarantine in those early weeks of March 2020 and vessels become stranded at sea, sailing like ghost ships without a place to dock, it sank the hearts of anyone who loves cruise travel.
One year later, cruise lines began offering sailings, though safety guarantees were tentative as the COVID-19 vaccines only just began to roll out. I personally began sailing in August 2021, onboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s return to service, which departed from Seattle to Alaska stopping at no foreign ports of call. Onsite testing was a requirement prior to boarding, and no children were allowed onboard — only fully vaccinated guests (this was prior to boosters).
My sailings continued without a hitch, onboard European river cruises with only two-dozen other guests on a vessel that holds nearly 200 passengers, or small cruise ships at reduced capacity; both required the use of a mask in all public areas and self-serve anything went out the window.
Travel was looking to pick up permanently into the fourth quarter of 2021, when the delta variant came onto the scene soon followed by the omicron variant, which proved to be highly contagious. Royal Caribbean sailings in January and February onboard a number of ships were paused and postponed, including Quantum of the Seas and Vision of the Seas, among others.
Now, in March, a shift has taken place in travel and especially cruising. Vaccine boosters are widely available for adults, children 5 and older are eligible for the vaccine, and the variants seem to be weakening one by one. Mask mandates across the United States are once again being lifted; Puerto Rico, the final holdout, rolled back its mask mandates during our port call on March 7, 2022.
Onboard Royal Caribbean ships, guests aged 12 and older are required to be fully vaccinated and are asked to provide a negative test result taken no more than 72 hours prior to boarding. Children 2 and younger are required to test prior to sailing and are required to book an antigen testing appointment onboard the ship prior to departing. Unvaccinated children are only allowed to take approved Royal Caribbean shore excursions.
Additionally, crew are fully vaccinated and boosted when eligible, and Royal Caribbean states that they are regularly tested. When a new crew member joins the vessel, they undergo a lengthy quarantine. All crew are still required to wear masks, as enforced by Royal Caribbean. However, in a positive sign of adapting to mask usage, all crew members onboard have a large button that they wear pinned to their shirts that shows them smiling without a mask. It’s a clever and personal touch we wish was possible earlier in the return to cruise.
While the test prior to boarding is an out-of-pocket cost, the antigen tests for children are provided, as is assistance if you test positive for COVID-19 during the sailing. This is not a common offer with every cruise company, and Royal Caribbean claims they will cover all medical and travel expenses — even going so far as to add that they will arrange a private jet, if need be.
Prior to boarding, I asked a representative how many people would be onboard a ship that has a guest capacity of nearly 7,000 people — and didn’t get an answer. And prior to the sailing I was told masks would be enforced in public areas. But if we’ve learned anything across the years-long pandemic, it’s that change is constant. Therefore, on February 15, the CDC lowered their COVID-19 threat level from 4 to 3, meaning Wonder of the Seas is currently sailing at two-thirds capacity, or 4,200 guests. (I haven’t been able to ascertain how many of these are unvaccinated children.)
Also, a change that took place prior to boarding was the mask mandate, which is now considered optional for sailings from the U.S. I’ve sailed without having to wear a mask, but paired with the sheer amount of fellow passengers, it’s a huge adjustment. I’ve found I personally wear mine indoors and especially in elevators where distancing is not possible. I have also been taking advantage of the ample outdoor space on Wonder, from sunny pool decks to the shaded Central Park and Boardwalk.
We’re told that designated rows were provided at shows for guests who identified as immune-compromised for about one week, but now that restrictions have been relaxed that option is no longer available. We’re also told that the cabin occupancy has been spaced out to enhance distancing, but with neighbors on either side of our cabin, we’re not sure on the exact strategy for that, or if it has also changed in the past week.
Hand washing and sanitizing are encouraged around the ship, but perhaps no more than prior to the pandemic when norovirus was the biggest concern. Buffets are mostly served to your plate rather than self-help — it’s the “world’s largest Windjammer” after all. Place cards are scattered on every surface of the ship indicating whether it has been sanitized or is unavailable. Our favorite change has been the streamlined muster drill, which involves watching a short safety demo on your cabin TV or in the app before quickly checking in to your muster station in person.
Being on a ship that roughly contains a Freedom of the Seas-worth of people is a tad daunting; we’re simply not used to crowded spaces yet. However, the significant width of Wonder of the Seas and its fellow Oasis-class siblings helps with space. Apart from a handful of holdouts still wearing masks, the ship is beginning to resemble pre-pandemic times. Of course, it could all change tomorrow, but for now cruising indeed feels “back to normal.” It only took about 700 days, a lot of trial and error, and a ton of hardworking people behind the scenes. And of course, plenty of people who are — and will always be —dedicated to cruise.