Having deposited our luggage to be taken onto our Celestyal Cruise ship in Piraeus, Greece, we stood in line, all wearing face masks, waiting for our required rapid Covid test. It was a hot day, and we were glad at least for the shade over this outdoor staging area next to the cruise terminal.
A young woman, neatly dressed and masked, strode up and down the line, periodically barking out orders: “Stay one and a half meters apart! One and half meters!” These outbursts were indiscriminate, aimed at strangers but also at couples who would presumably be sharing rooms on the ship.
Embarking on my first cruise – the “Idyllic Aegean” on the Celestyal Crystal – I’d been anticipating a week of relaxed sightseeing at the cruise line’s many ports of call in the Greek islands. This bossy young woman, though, worried me. Would we have to wear our masks constantly? Would we be treated like disobedient children for the duration of the cruise, being ordered about in the interest of safety?
I needn’t have worried. I found out later that the rather militant approach in the terminal had to do with the threat of inspections by authorities. The situation on board, while still vigilant, was far more nuanced.
Covid safety on a Celestyal Cruise
Celestyal has established a protocol for its cruises that is organized and clear, yet did not hamper my enjoyment.
It started in that line outside the terminal, leading to a rapid test. We – a group of travel journalists and I – could not board the ship without first passing a temperature check and a rapid test for Covid-19.
Celestyal does not require passengers to be vaccinated, though some other cruise lines do. Instead, it administers two rapid tests: one before letting passengers board the ship and one in the second half of the cruise week. If anyone tests positive, they then undergo a PCR test, and the cruise line has quarantine cabins ready. The ship’s doctor provides medical care until the passenger can disembark.
I was told that the entire crew was fully vaccinated, and that they’d all gone through quarantine and testing when they joined the ship. I met one crew member, though, who’d gone through the week-long quarantine and regular testing on the ship, but had not yet been vaccinated.
Covid policy on board … in theory
The basic rule on board the Celestyal Crystal is to wear a face mask everywhere on the ship, except when eating dinner or drinking, when outdoors, or in one’s assigned cabin. It quickly became habitual to grab a mask before leaving the cabin.
Even before the pandemic, cruise lines offered hand sanitizer on entering dining areas, and on the Crystal more of these dispensers were available. Signs and screens urged passengers to keep distanced and to wear masks in public spaces. Seats were marked with signs reading “Do not sit here,” so that, for example, every square table, usually meant for four people, only had two chairs open.
Every day, all passengers were required to have a temperature check before noon, easily done through machines posted at strategic points around the ship.
Buffets have been replaced with a system where passengers point to what they want and the crew puts together a tray for them. Things like railings, door handles, and elevator buttons are cleaned often.
A more nuanced reality
Nevertheless, the situation as it actually played out was somewhat different.
Often passengers did not wear masks. Groups created their own “bubbles,” ignoring “Do not sit here” signs to sit with friends or family. Passengers broke the distancing and mask rules at the disco and the bars. The fact that we could take off masks to drink increased our tendency to drink or to drink slowly. As long as a drink stood on the table, we could claim to be exempt from mask-wearing.
The fact is, we didn’t feel unsafe. All of the people in the press group I traveled with were fully vaccinated, so there just didn’t seem much point in distancing or mask-wearing.
In other words, the rules felt like overkill, which meant many of us broke the rules. Sometimes passengers left their cabins without masks. Often we sat closer together than strictly allowed, without our masks on, since we were drinking or eating.
Crew members, on the other hand, consistently wore masks, but sometimes not fully: covering the mouth but not the nose, or entirely tucked below the chin.
Not that anyone asked or made much effort to enforce the rules. Occasionally a waiter at the entrance to a restaurant would gesture for me to use hand sanitizer, but there was no barking out orders and no sense of confrontation. The crew was consistently polite, never making a fuss, even with blatant rule-breaking. I never witnessed a confrontation or a passenger refusing to cooperate.
One day I forgot to get my temperature taken before leaving on an excursion. I was not stopped as I left the ship and there were no repercussions upon my return.
What would the crew do if someone refused outright to wear a mask? Incidents of passengers on airplanes refusing to wear masks have hit the news recently, but it seems unlikely that this would happen on a cruise. Flying is an uncomfortable necessity, setting everyone on edge, but cruises are meant for enjoyment. How likely is it that anyone would take the risk of being removed from the ship?
Celestyal promises thorough cleaning of buses used for excursions. Tour guides and drivers wear masks. We were required to wear masks in vehicles like vans, buses or enclosed boats and, as on the ship, signs urged social distancing.
After spending so much time together, though, both on the ship and off, and given the knowledge that we were all fully vaccinated, we tended to “forget” the mask as we boarded the bus. It was just so easy to go from a walking tour in the open air – no mask required – to a restaurant, also outdoors, to boarding a van, all the while chatting carelessly, maskless. It felt like freedom.
I don’t know if the service providers – drivers, tour guides, waiters and so on – just didn’t care whether we were masked or not, or if they were too polite to say anything. Perhaps they just didn’t want to provoke a confrontation.
While a comprehensive anti-Covid policy can protect everyone from infection – both passengers and crew – no set of rules can accommodate the fact that people are individuals who make their own assessments about safety. Two seats at a four-seat table may be marked as off-limits, but if four people wish to sit together, they will. If a crew member is doing heavy physical work and chooses to pull his mask down, he will.
This may be an expression of carelessness or it may follow from a careful consideration of risks and benefits. The reason doesn’t particularly matter.
Getting everyone to follow the rules to the letter would require just what I witnessed at the cruise terminal: staff barking orders at passengers. No one wants that. Both crew and passengers have a stake in letting cruises happen, and both seem prepared to accept the small risks involved.
What is required right now to board a Celestyal cruise
The rules to enter Greece are not the same as the rules Celestyal sets for its cruises.
At the time of this writing, anyone traveling to Greece is required to show a) a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival, b) a negative rapid test taken within 48 hours of arrival, c) proof of being fully vaccinated 14 or more days before entry or d) proof of past infection with Covid. A passenger locator form is also required.
Celestyal Cruises adds further rules. It has its own version of a passenger locator form as well as a health questionnaire. All passengers must take a rapid test before boarding a Celestyal ship. Once you’ve jumped through all of the hoops, though, you can let your guard (and your mask) down. The ship seems to be a bark-free zone.
For more cruise reviews and destination ideas, visit our cruise channel.Last modified: July 19, 2021