Cruises and the Coronavirus: What Passengers Need to Know

“The first thing I do every morning when I open my eyes is Google ‘coronavirus,’” said Diane Fudge, a travel adviser at All Inclusive Travel Concierge in Homosassa, Fla. Half of Ms. Fudge’s business comes from selling cruise vacations, so she is keeping a close eye on the situation for her clients. She is also checking for herself: As of now, she plans to go ahead with a March cruise to Mexico.

Thirty-two million passengers were expected to embark on ocean cruises in 2020, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), and this is the time of year when large cruise ships are most likely to be sailing in Asia, so the coronavirus outbreak couldn’t have come at a worse time.

People over 60, an important cruise customer demographic, are especially at risk from the virus, and vivid images from the quarantined Diamond Princess, as well as a drumbeat of cruise-related news, have compounded travelers’ worries.

On Wednesday, Princess cruise line sent a notice to passengers and crew aboard the Grand Princess which was on its way back to San Francisco, informing them that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was investigating a cluster of Covid-19 cases in Northern California connected to the ship’s previous sailing. Passengers on board who had also sailed on that previous voyage were being asked to remain in their cabins “in an abundance of caution.”

Companies are responding by changing sailing itineraries, barring crew or passengers who have been in the hardest-hit countries from boarding, implementing more vigorous health screenings, and increasing onboard cleaning and crew training. All this is to keep people safe, reassure customers and stanch cancellations.

The current situation is fluid. Karen Shelton, the owner of the travel agency My Path Unwinding near Charlotte, N.C., said about 60 percent of her business comes from cruise sales, so she has been fielding dozens of calls from worried travelers. Many who are booked on cruises to Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean are taking a wait-and-see approach, she said, in deciding whether they will go. They don’t really have a choice in many cases, she added, because travel insurance “doesn’t cover worry,” and many cruise lines’ cancellation penalties remain in place.

Here’s what travelers who have cruises booked for the next few months can expect.

Policies vary by company and even by scheduled sailing, so travelers should contact their travel agent or cruise company. Some bookings may be able to be changed. Those who do not meet the current health criteria can cancel with no penalty, but a doctor’s note or other proof may be required.

While cruise companies have typically had stringent cancellation fees and polices, some companies are softening their stance as health conditions unfold. On March 2, Viking River Cruises announced that any passenger scheduled to embark before April 30 could cancel up to 24 hours in advance of their trip and receive a credit to be used on another Viking cruise within 24 months.

Norwegian is allowing passengers to delay final payments on June and July voyages, as well as allowing a longer period to decide to change to a different sailing. Substituting a different passenger for the one who had originally booked (a no-no in the past) is allowed up to 45 days before sailing.

MSC Cruises is allowing passengers booked on a March or April Mediterranean cruise to postpone their cruise or switch to a different one operating in another region and sailing within the next year. And Uniworld travelers set to depart May 1 or later can cancel up to 30 days in advance, rather than up to 120 days with a $200 penalty.

Member companies of the industry association CLIA are generally abiding by its evolving rules regarding who can and can’t board one of their ships. Passengers and crew are to be kept on shore if they have visited or gone through airports in Iran, South Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau or parts of Italy within 14 days before embarkation; if they have cared for someone who has or might have Covid-19 disease; or if they have exhibited symptoms of the virus. Travelers turned away for these reasons will receive a full refund.

Royal Caribbean is one company going beyond the CLIA guidelines and denying boarding to any passenger who has come within six feet of anyone who has been in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Iran, South Korea or Italy within the last 15 days. The company will be relying on passengers to be truthful about any close encounters.

To comply with these regulations, passengers are filling out health and travel questionnaires before they board. “Cruise companies always screened passengers for health, but the questions are more specific now to the virus,” said Ms. Shelton.

Preboarding temperature checks are also becoming more common.

Companies have been canceling some sailings, adjusting the itineraries of others, and in some cases moving to their next scheduled part of the globe a bit early. Seabourn, for example, canceled one cruise departing from Singapore, and replaced another ship’s Asian ports of call with Australian ones. Alaska cruises are expected to start up a bit earlier than usual for Viking and some other lines.

Cruise companies have always reserved the right to change their schedules based on local circumstances. A letter posted Feb. 12 on the Celebrity Cruise company website states that a March 17 cruise will embark from Dubai instead of Singapore, replace the stop in Thailand with a day at sea, and extend days in India. The letter states that “normal cancellation penalties will apply.” For a passenger two to four weeks from departure, the penalty is 75 percent of the trip cost.

Passengers are likely to encounter some or all of the following on board: increased cleaning frequency by staff, especially in high traffic areas; more hand sanitizer stations; and staff handing out disinfectant wipes. Self-serve buffets may also now be tended by servers.

Jenny Block, the author of Be That Unicorn, has been on more than a dozen cruises and noticed that the typical health and cleaning activities had “gone up a level” on her mid-February sailing on the Royal Princess to Cabo San Lucas. In addition to sanitizer stations at restaurant entrances, there were now sinks to wash hands and staff encouraging their use. Multiple health-focused announcements were made each day.

“We were told that public restrooms were available but to use our own stateroom bathrooms when possible,” Ms. Block said. Passengers started taking some of their own precautions, such as walking more slowly down the staircase rather than holding the banister.

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