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Cruises and the Coronavirus: What Travelers Need to Know

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As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department continue to urge Americans to avoid cruise ships, and with a ban on much travel from Europe set to begin on Friday, the cruise industry reversed course this week and began suspending sailings.

On Wednesday, Viking said it was temporarily suspending operations of river and ocean cruises, for embarkations taking place between March 12 and April 30. On Thursday, Princess Cruises announced it was voluntarily suspending all 18 of its ships for two months; the company has canceled departures scheduled between March 12 and May 10.

“It is our intention to reassure our loyal guests, team members and global stakeholders of our commitment to the health, safety and well-being of all who sail with us, as well as those who do business with us, and the countries and communities we visit around the world,” Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, said in an emailed statement.

Two of the company’s ships, the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, have been quarantined, with numerous passengers becoming infected.

Also on Thursday, Virgin Voyages, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, announced it would postpone the launch of Scarlet Lady, its first ship, to July 15 and reschedule the maiden voyage to August 7. The much-buzzed-about Miami launch had originally been scheduled for March.

“The current global health crisis is understandably making many people rethink upcoming travel plans. While there have been no health concerns on our ship Scarlet Lady, the Virgin Voyages team has engaged future sailors and travel partners as we all navigate this challenging moment together,” said Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Voyages Chief Executive Tom McAlpin in a joint emailed statement.

The cruise lines had continued to sail even after advisories from the C.D.C. and the State Department.

“Recent reports of Covid-19 on cruise ships highlight the risk of infection to cruise ship passengers and crew,” the C.D.C. said in its advisory. “Like many other viruses, Covid-19 appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships.”

The State Department, in its advisory issued on Sunday, said that American citizens, particularly those with underlying health conditions, “should not travel by cruise ship.”

The State Department also issued a Level 3 advisory, or Reconsider Travel, for global travel on Wednesday night.

The warnings came after the leaders of the top American cruise companies met with Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday and agreed to work with the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and the C.D.C. to come up with new policies to help contain the coronavirus in the coming days.

At the meeting, Mr. Pence said cruise lines would enhance their entry and exit screenings, establish shipboard testing for the coronavirus, coordinate new quarantine standards ​for all ships ​with the C​.D​.C. and create a protocol ​for mov​ing​ any​one who got ​​​​the coronavirus or ​another serious​ ill​ness​ to ​facilities on land. ​

With some ships staying in port, what can travelers expect?

According to a spokesman for Carnival Corporation — Princess’s parent company and the world’s biggest cruise company — the two-month service suspension will only apply to Princess sailings. The company’s other brands, which include Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Cunard, enhanced their health-screening protocols to include thermal scans and temperature checks before boarding and onboard, and were in conversation with the C.D.C., the World Health Organization and other health officials.

“This is an unprecedented time in the cruise industry and the world. We remain focused on protecting the health and safety of our guests,” the Carnival spokesman said.

Melissa Charbonneau, director of corporate reputation for Royal Caribbean Cruises, another big player in the cruise market, said that it was “staying focused on development of an aggressive, responsive plan, as agreed to during the meeting with Vice President Pence.”

Traditionally, the cruise companies have set very strict refund policies, but they have loosened up in recent days, as cruise ships have been kept from entering certain ports, or, like the Princess ships, been quarantined.

Guests affected by Princess’s cancellations can transfer 100 percent of the funds to any voyage departing through May 1, 2022 — a move the company is encouraging by tossing in extra perks, like credits for onboard expenses. Guests can also request a cash refund through an online form.

Many other cruise lines, including Norwegian, MSC Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Seabourn are letting people delay their sailings, cancel within days of a trip or substitute another passenger for the one originally booked (usually a no-no). Policies vary by company and even by scheduled sailing, so travelers should contact their travel agent or cruise company.

Silversea, part of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., and Cunard, part of Carnival, are both allowing passengers on sailings scheduled to depart before July 31 to cancel as late as 48 hours prior. Additionally, for guests who keep sailings scheduled to depart before the end of August, Cunard will issue onboard credits ranging from $150 per stateroom (for one- to three-night cruises) to $900 per stateroom (for cruises lasting 15 nights or longer).

Virgin Voyages is sweetening the pot even further. Passengers who choose to rebook rather than cancel will get a 200 percent credit that can be applied to another sailing, plus a $500 credit to be used onboard. Those who wish to cancel can do so without penalty; they’ll be given a full refund as well as 25 percent credit toward a future booking.

Holland America Line, another Carnival line, is allowing people who booked a cruise embarking between April 1 and Oct. 15 and who booked in March or April to cancel and receive a future cruise credit.

Would-be travelers have been asking about refunds on social media. Carnival, in response, has been telling them that trips are not canceled and that, “While advisories are in place, we are open for business and look forward to welcoming guests who choose to take a cruise vacation with us.”

In recent weeks, many cruise companies have increased their health screenings and onboard cleaning procedures. Embarking passengers may face temperature scans and questionnaires about their travel and proximity to others who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Cruise lines have also adjusted itineraries and kept crew members and passengers who have been in the hardest-hit countries from boarding ships.

Royal Caribbean said last week that if a passenger has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or more at embarkation, they have to undergo a secondary screening, which involves testing blood oxygen levels. ​A medical professional will then check the person for other flulike symptoms. The cruise line ​is encouraging people with chronic lung illness​es​, like asthma, ​to bring a letter from ​a doctor ​stating their normal oxygen levels. Anyone not cleared will be denied boarding and receive a refund.

The new guidelines to be worked out after the industry meeting with the vice president are expected to be announced before the end of the week.

In its advisory, the State Department noted that, “While the U.S. government has evacuated some cruise ship passengers in recent weeks, repatriation flights should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens under the potential risk of quarantine by local authorities.”

Tariro Mzezewa contributed reporting from New York.

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