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Sadly, COVID-19 hasn't fully released its grip on the cruise industry yet, even as entire fleets continue to return to operations. The mask mandate has returned, at least on one ship.
Holland America Line's Rotterdam VII departed Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on May 29 on its christening cruise. The naming ceremony is scheduled for the following day in its namesake city, Rotterdam, from where the company's first-ever voyage departed in October 150 years ago.
But upon boarding the ship in Amsterdam, passengers were handed a letter advising that masks are once again required at all times indoors - except when eating or drinking - and in large groups outdoors or when physical distance can't be maintained. Masks also are highly recommended on shore tours, particularly when indoors, on public transportation and in crowded areas.
"We recently identified some positive COVID-19 cases amongst our guests and crew members," the letter read. "They are all asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic, and they and their close contacts have been isolated and quarantined and are being monitored and cared for by our shipboard medical team. Out of an abundance of caution, we will be requiring guests to wear face masks while indoors except when eating or drinking or in their own staterooms."
The ship stocked each stateroom with four KN95 masks.
What's more, Holland America Line President Gus Antorcha is missing the celebratory cruise because he contracted COVID-19, and the company's own protocols prevent him from sailing although he's feeling better, company executives said at a question-and-answer session with media onboard for the christening.
While some cruise lines have had to temporarily close venues or reduce passenger capacity due to staffing shortages, Holland America has not had to do that, said Michael Smith, senior vice president-guest experience.
"Like the whole of the cruise industry they are suffering with getting staff onto the ships for a variety of reasons. There's a lot of demand to work on ships but there are also little things called visas, like Schengen visas and U.S. visas to work on the ships in U.S. waters.
"There are certain countries where appointments to get those visas can be as long as six months out. So we may have staff that want to join the ship but we can't get the visas for them to join the ship," Smith said. "We do have some shortages, but we are fortunate we're being able to move staff from one ship to another ship to fill those gaps. Most of our shortages are in the galley operations, but we are moving staff within departments, not necessarily to go and cook but maybe to serve in Lido Market or do other cleaning jobs in different parts of the ship; it just depends."
Staff also can be moved from ships that are less full to those at capacity, he added.
"We're able to juggle around - with 11 ships we have that luxury - so we haven't really seen too much change to the onboard experience as a result of that. It's fairly minimal."
The ships are not closing any venues, although it might close one for one night if there are minimal reservations in a specialty restaurant, for example.
Holland America Line has extended its "Worry-Free Promise" through Dec. 31, 2022, for all cruises booked by Sept. 30. Guests who make a new booking by Sept. 30 for departures on or before Dec. 31, 2022, can cancel for any reason up to 30 days before departure and receive a future cruise credit. The COVID-19 Protection Program gives future credits to guests who cannot travel due to a positive test or new governmental travel restriction.
The 2,668-passenger, 99,800-gross-ton Rotterdam was delivered in July 2021 but entered service in October. The christening cruise is sailing with about 1,600 passengers.
The ship will be christened by Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, her fifth time as a Holland America Line godmother.
Despite the pall cast by COVID-19, Holland America has plenty more to celebrate. On June 12, its fleet's final ship, Westerdam, will return to service on Alaska cruises from Seattle. On that day, it will have been 805 days since Holland America operated a full fleet, going back to mid-March 2020.
The company also is marking its 75th year in Alaska and the 25th anniversary of Half Moon Cay, its private island in the Bahamas.
Holland America executives also are warmed by the fact that 1,100 Ukrainian refugees are housed in its Volendam cruise ship in Rotterdam. That city is chartering the vessel through Sept. 14, 2022, as a temporary home. The line partnered with the Salvation Army in the Netherlands to buy needed items, including toys, backpacks and lunchboxes for children.
Stayed tuned - TravelPulse will file another report from Rotterdam after the christening festivities.
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Theresa Norton, editor in chief of AGENTatHOME Magazine, covers the cruise industry for TravelPulse.com.
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