Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival cruise lines to ease mask mandates

Cruise ship steaming off the shore of Grand Cayman Island, Royal Caribbean cruise liner Mariner of the Sea, turning to return to sea. (Photo by: MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Three major cruise lines are set to ease their COVID-19 mask mandates amid a case drop in the U.S.

Royal Caribbean announced starting Friday, masks will be optional for fully vaccinated guests. In addition, unvaccinated children are expected to continue wearing their masks indoors and in crowded settings. Guests under 2 years old do not have to wear a mask. 

Carnival Cruise Line said beginning March 1, masks onboard will be recommended but not required. However, certain venues and events where masks will be required.

"The public health situation has continued to improve, providing confidence about these changes," Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said in a news release. "Our protocols will evolve as we continue to remain dedicated to protecting the public health of our guests, crew and the communities we visit."

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Norwegian Cruise Line also said it would drop the onboard mask mandate starting March 1 when originating from a U.S. port.

Most cruise lines require adult passengers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Ships are allowed to relax measures such as mask use if at least 95% of passengers and 95% of crew are fully vaccinated.

Average daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to fall in the U.S., an indicator that the omicron variant’s hold is weakening across the country. Total confirmed cases reported Saturday barely exceeded 100,000, a sharp downturn from around 800,850 five weeks ago on Jan. 16, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are down from a national seven-day average of 146,534 on Jan. 20 to 80,185 the week ending in Feb 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID data tracker.

Throughout the pandemic, the cruise industry struggled to stay afloat. 

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Last December, the CDC warned people not to go on cruises, regardless of their vaccination status, because of onboard outbreaks fueled by the omicron variant. The CDC said it had more than 90 cruise ships under investigation or observation as a result of COVID-19 cases. The agency did not disclose the number of infections.

U.S. cruise lines had not announced any plans to halt trips, though vessels have been denied entry at some foreign ports.

In March 2020, as the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., the CDC put a halt to all cruises for what turned out to be 15 months. Last June, it allowed ships to resume sailing under new strict new conditions.

In August, as the delta variant surged, the agency warned people who are at risk of severe illness despite being vaccinated not to go on cruises.

The Royal Caribbean Group said that since cruising restarted in U.S. waters last spring, 1.1 million guests had traveled with its cruise lines and 1,745 people had tested positive for COVID-19, or about 0.16%.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.