The incident, which came after Royal Caribbean spent months working out protocols for safe cruising, illustrated the difficulty of keeping the virus off ships
Royal Caribbean International canceled its next "cruise to nowhere" from Singapore on Wednesday after cutting a trip short when one passenger tested positive for the coronavirus.
Passengers were being allowed to disembark late Wednesday, local time, after being stuck in their rooms since early that morning. The Quantum of the Seas set sail on Monday and was scheduled for a four-day, three-night "Ocean Getaway" with no stops.
The incident, which came after Royal Caribbean spent months working out protocols for safe cruising with authorities in Singapore, illustrated the difficulty of keeping the virus off ships - and highlighted issues around the reliability and timing of testing.
Annie Chang, director of cruise development at the Singapore Tourism Board, said in a statement that the man who tested positive on the cruise had tested negative before he was allowed on the ship.
After the 83-year-old man reported to the ship's medical centre with a stomach illness, he tested positive for the coronavirus using equipment on board. Later on Wednesday, Singapore's health ministry said a re-test of the original sample and an additional test had both been negative, and another test would be scheduled for Thursday.
Following the positive test on the ship, workers "identified and isolated all guests and crew who had close contact with this guest, and each of those individuals have subsequently tested negative for the virus," Royal Caribbean spokesman Jonathon Fishman said in an email. There were 1,680 passengers on board.
All passengers are required to be tested at the terminal before they are allowed to leave - even when no one becomes ill during a cruise. The ship's entire crew is being tested.
According to the tourism board, passengers will have to monitor their health for 14 days and get tested at the end of that period. Close contacts of the man who tested positive "will be sent to a designated government quarantine facility," according to a statement.
Royal Caribbean International started sailing three- and four-night cruises to nowhere on the Quantum of the Seas ship on December 1. It was the company's first cruise with paying passengers since the pandemic forced a global shutdown in March.
Under the program worked out with officials in Singapore, all passengers were required to be tested for the coronavirus before boarding. The ship, which can normally hold 4,180 passengers with two to a room, is operating at 50 percent occupancy, and public spaces can only be half full. Masks are required, except when passengers are eating, drinking, doing strenuous exercise or in their rooms.
The "Ocean Getaways" are open only to Singapore residents, who must have a contact-tracing app or token and a Royal Caribbean wearable device that monitors passengers for social distancing.
"We worked closely with the government to develop a thorough system that tests and monitors all guests and crew and follows public-health best practices," Fishman said. "That we were able to quickly identify this single case and take immediate action is a sign that the system is working as it was designed to do."
The Singapore Tourism Board announced in October that officials would start allowing two companies - Royal Caribbean and Genting Cruise Lines - to operate round-trip cruises with no port calls as a pilot program.
"The government will monitor the outcomes of the pilot sailings carefully in the coming months before deciding on the next steps for cruises," the announcement said.
In September, 12 crew members on a cruise in Greece tested positive during a random sampling, but the company said it was a "false alarm" after three additional tests were negative.
An effort to start cruising in the Caribbean again last month failed when nine people who had been sailing with SeaDream Yacht Club tested positive. The company canceled its cruises for the rest of the year, citing the difficulty of keeping passengers healthy.
"The company will now spend time to evaluate and see if it is possible to operate and have a high degree of certainty of not getting Covid," SeaDream said in a statement.
Cruise lines in the United States aren't able to sail U.S. waters with passengers, but they could be allowed soon if they rehearse passenger voyages with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety protocols in place.