ABOARD THE ROTTERDAM – I boarded Holland America Line’s new Rotterdam expecting a lax mask culture. That’s not what I found.
I checked in mid-cruise from Rotterdam as called in Bergen, Norway, taking a lift during the second half of a seven-day cruise before the ship’s christening ceremony in Rotterdam at Netherlands on May 30.
As I explored the 2,668-passenger ship for the first time, traversing its 12 decks with mid-trip guests, I was surprised to find a mask-wearing discipline I hadn’t seen since the omicron variant of Covid-19 shook the public conscience earlier this year.
While crew members wore masks, as I had seen on every other ship I’ve been on during the pandemic, passengers surprisingly dutifully wore masks in most places, such as when attempting their luck at the casino’s slot machines and watch a quartet sing songs from the ages in the World Stage theatre.
As I stood in the back of the standing-room-only BB King’s Blues Club that night, and later in the Rolling Stone Rock Room, some guests were still wearing masks while tapping their feet to the beat, even with a glass in front of them. A woman wearing a mask happily danced in her front row seat.
This discipline of the mask, according to Wessel Oorschot, general manager of the Rotterdam hotel, was born from an “unfortunate” evolution. Like other HAL ships, masks were not recommended until her last voyage. During this cruise, the ship saw an increase in cases among guests and some crew members.
Management then instituted a mask mandate on the ship, though guests in areas like the indoor pool, outdoor spaces and seated dining areas are often mask-free.
“We want to make sure this doesn’t carry over from cruise to cruise. I will say this cruise is going extremely well,” Oorschot said. “We almost zeroed the transmission.”
Wearing a mask was optional on my last cruise three weeks ago aboard the Azamara Onward in the Mediterranean. While guests were required to wear masks during tenders and tours, masks were optional on board for everyone but the crew.
“It’s still one of the safest places,” Oorschot said of cruises. “Can I give you a 100% guarantee that you won’t be in contact with anyone who is potentially positive? No, I can’t. No one can unless you stay home with no contact.”
Mask policies have generally eased in the cruise industry as the severity of Covid-19 variants has subsided and the CDC has lowered its masking requirements. Since February, cruise lines were no longer required to require passengers to wear masks to comply with CDC standards under the Covid-19 program for cruise ships operating in US waters, leaving that discretion to cruise ships.
Rotterdam crew members are tested every two weeks on a weekly rotation, or immediately if they develop a symptom, Oorschot said. Although the risks of hospitalization are lower with the current variant, positive cases also introduce logistical challenges for the line.
“Of course, many of our customers are a bit older,” said Rotterdam cruise and travel director Karlijn Varpalen. “For them, it could be more serious symptoms.”
Crew members who test positive for Covid must remain off the ground for at least six days until they test negative. For guests, Holland America will isolate Covid positive guests and crew in negative pressure cabins. The line will then drop customers off at partner hotels, arrange transportation and pay their $100-a-day food bill.
It is even more complicated for American customers who must test positive to return to the United States, which lengthens this delay.
It’s unclear how long the mask’s tenure will last.
“We still have people who are not happy because they have to wear a mask,” Verpalen said.