Breakthrough COVID Case Suspends Royal Caribbean’s Hong Kong Cruises

COVID breakthrough forces cancelation of Royal Caribbean's Hong Kong cruises
Spectrum of the Seas on a previous Hong Kong arrival (Royal Caribbean International)

Published Oct 22, 2021 2:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

An apparent “breakthrough” case of COVID-19 forced the cancelation of a scheduled four-night cruise to nowhere from Hong Kong and after further follow up Chinese officials are now requesting that Royal Caribbean International suspend cruising for 21 days. Reports of a positive COVID test for a crew member appeared after the passengers had boarded the cruise and just two weeks after Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas had begun sailing from Hong Kong.

The Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health in Hong Kong reports that during routine testing a 40-year-old male crew member had a positive result for COVID-19. The first test result on October 21 from a private lab was categorized as “indeterminate,” which prompted the Department of Health to board the ship and conduct its own test. “The confirmatory test result conducted by the DH's Public Health Laboratory Services Branch on the same day revealed that the sample tested positive for COVID-19, with a very low viral load,” CHP reported.

A review of the crew member’s history shows that he tested positive for the virus in July while in Malaysia but later tested negative multiple times. He also received the Chinese COVID-19 vaccination and was considered to be fully vaccinated.  

The crew member, who is reported to be asymptomatic, was transferred to a hospital where a further test categorized him as negative although his antibody test for the virus was positive. “Based on the epidemiological and laboratory findings, the case is compatible with a re-positive case,” CHP determined.

Royal Caribbean International told the approximately 1,200 passengers who had boarded the Spectrum of the Seas for the cruise that their voyage was canceled by the health authorities. The cruise line, however, said that the crew members worked in a back office position meaning he did not have any contact with passengers.

Hong Kong’s strict COVID regulations, however, in addition to requiring cancelation of the cruise triggered a contract tracing program, and everyone deemed to have been in close contact with the crew member is being put under compulsory quarantine at a quarantine center. Passengers and crew who had been aboard the ship for more than two hours between September 30 and October 21 have to undergo compulsory testing and, “for prudence sake, the CHP has also requested the cruise to suspend its journey for 21 days. They can receive guests starting from November 11.”

Royal Caribbean International had planned to resume sailing from Hong Kong at the end of July after the authorities announced that they would let cruises begin following a similar model to Singapore. The trips are only for residents who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and test negative before boarding. The 169,379 gross ton cruise ship, which can accommodate up to 5,600 passengers, also has a 50 percent capacity restriction and the voyages are limited to between two and fours days at sea with no ports. Royal Caribbean delayed the start of the cruises three times citing COVID and travel restrictions as well as quarantine requirements. The Spectrum of the Seas began its cruises from Hong Kong on October 14. 

The latest setback for the cruise line comes as Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO of its parent company Royal Caribbean Group released a video to travel professionals saying, “The time has come to look forward. The focus is on how we come out of the panic and out of the pandemic, rather than how we should live during it." While Fain recognizes that the pandemic is not over and is especially challenging in the developing world, he repeatedly has discussed how he believes the cruise industry will be back to a more normal position by the end of 2021. The cruise line plans for an additional 12 ships to return for service for Royal Caribbean International between September 2021 and May 2022, as well as additional cruise ships for the parent company’s other brands.