Italy may be in Easter lockdown, but the party's on at sea

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Passengers take selfies on a deck of the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship in Civitavecchia, near Rome, Wednesday, March 31, 2021. MSC Grandiosa, the world's only cruise ship to be operating at the moment, left from Genoa on March 30 and stopped in Civitavecchia near Rome to pick up more passengers and then sail toward Naples, Cagliari, and Malta to be back in Genoa on April 6. For most of the winter, the MSC Grandiosa has been a lonely flag-bearer of the global cruise industry stalled by the pandemic, plying the Mediterranean Sea with seven-night cruises along Italys western coast, its major islands and a stop in Malta. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Italy may be in a strict coronavirus lockdown this Easter with travel restricted between regions and new quarantines imposed. But a few miles offshore, guests aboard the MSC Grandiosa cruise ship are shimmying to Latin music on deck and sipping cocktails by the pool.

In one of the anomalies of lockdowns that have shuttered hotels and resorts around the world, the Grandiosa has been plying the Mediterranean Sea this winter with seven-night cruises, a lonely flag-bearer of the global cruise industry.

After cruise ships were early sources of highly publicized coronavirus outbreaks, the Grandiosa has tried to chart a course through the pandemic with strict anti-virus protocols approved by Italian authorities that seek to create a “health bubble” on board.

Passengers and crew are tested before and during cruises. Mask mandates, temperature checks, contact-tracing wristbands and frequent cleaning of the ship are all designed to prevent outbreaks. Passengers from outside Italy must arrive with negative COVID-19 tests taken within 48 hours of their departures and only residents of Europe's Schengen countries plus Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria are permitted to book under COVID-19 insurance policies.

On Wednesday, the Grandiosa left the Italian port of Civitavecchia for its weeklong Easter cruise, with 2,000 of its 6,000-passenger capacity and stops planned in Naples and Valletta, Malta, before returning to its home port in Genoa.

Passengers welcomed the semblance of normalcy brought on by the freedom to eat in a restaurant or sit poolside without a mask, even if the virus is still a present concern.

“After a year of restrictive measures, we thought we could take a break for a week and relax,” said Stefania Battistoni, a 39-year-old teacher and single mother who drove all night from Bolzano, in northern Italy, with her two sons and mother to board the cruise.

The pandemic has plunged global cruise ship passenger numbers from a record 30 million in 2019 to over 350,000 since July 2020, according to Cruise Lines International, the world’s largest cruise industry association representing 95% of ocean-going cruise capacity. Currently, fewer than 20 ships are operating globally, a small fraction of CLIA’s members’ fleets of 270 ships.