CDC lifts no-sail order for cruise ships. But there’s a catch

Oct 30, 2020

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It’s official: Cruise ships can start sailing again out of U.S. ports.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said it would not extend its “no-sail” order for cruise ships that operate in U.S. waters beyond the end of this month.

The order is scheduled to expire at midnight on Saturday.

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Still, cruise lines won’t be able to restart cruising out of U.S. ports immediately. Indeed, it’s still unclear just how soon U.S. cruising really can begin.

In place of the no-sail order, the CDC on Friday issued a new “framework for conditional sailing” order that creates a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.

The 40-page order, which was posted on the CDC website, suggested the CDC first wants to see that cruise lines have a plan in place for keeping their ship crews healthy and safe.

“CDC will ensure cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for crew members while these cruise ship operators build the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers,” the agency said in the order.

Related: Rising COVID cases threatens budding restart of Europe cruising

Independence of the Seas
Royal Caribbean is among the lines that have canceled all sailings for November. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

After that, the agency will require lines to conduct “simulated voyages” to test the ability of cruise lines to mitigate COVID risk on ships.

In a third phase of the CDC’s framework for a comeback of cruising, the agency will require certification for ships that meet specific requirements.

Only after that will lines be allowed to begin sailing with passengers.

The CDC suggested the resumption of cruising out of U.S. ports would happen gradually to mitigate COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members and the U.S. communities that cruise ships visit. It suggested nothing was written in stone.

Related: The coronavirus crisis claims a sixth cruise line

“These phases are subject to change based on public health considerations and cruise ship operators’ demonstrated ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk,” the order said.

The CDC didn’t offer an estimate for how long it might take lines to complete the various phases of the framework or say when the first sailings with passengers might take place. But it’s clear that the expiration of the agency’s no-sail order does not mean cruise ships necessarily can sail in November or even December.

All major cruise lines that operate in U.S. waters already have canceled sailings out of U.S. ports for November. Some lines already have canceled sailings well into December or even January.

There currently are no cruise ships sailing in North America, even in areas that have not been subject to the CDC no-sail order.

Only one small cruise operator, SeaDream Yacht Club, has announced plans to resume sailings in North America in November. The line’s 112-passenger SeaDream I is scheduled to start a series of 22 voyages out of Barbados to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada, on Nov. 7.

Related: Demand for cruises on small ships jumps in wake of COVID pandemic

The itinerary that SeaDream plans is not subject to CDC regulation because it does not involve travel in U.S. waters.

The order suggested that some cruise lines may be allowed to return to cruising more quickly than others, depending on how quickly they satisfy CDC requirements.

“This framework allows for individual cruise lines to progress through phases at variable paces,” the order said. “This enables cruise lines successfully implementing public health measures to return to passenger operations more quickly while others by necessity may move more slowly.”

The CDC order included many pages of requirements that cruise lines will have to meet before they can be awarded a Conditional Sailing Certificate.

The order also suggested that the epidemiologists at the CDC continue to see cruise ships as places that are inherently more likely to be hotspots for COVID-19 transmission than other settings.

“Current scientific evidence suggests that, absent mitigation measures of the type needed to prevent further transmission, cruise ships would continue to pose a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than other settings,” the order said.

The CDC has had a no-sail order for cruise ships in place since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in mid-March. There hasn’t been a single cruise out of a U.S. port since then.

The cruise industry has spent the summer designing new COVID-related health and safety protocols to implement when cruising resumes.

A “healthy sail panel” of health experts created by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in September released a 66-page report with 74 recommendations for things lines could do to bring back cruising safely. The recommendations include a call to implement a COVID-19 testing requirement for all passengers and crew, social distancing on ships and restrictions on passenger movements in ports.

The main trade group for the cruise industry, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), in September also released guidelines for a healthy restart to cruising.

Related: Has MSC Cruises cracked the code to a safe return of cruising?

“Guided by the recommendations of leading experts in health and science, including the Healthy Sail Panel, our members are 100% committed to helping to protect the health of our guests, our crew and the communities we serve, and are prepared to implement multiple layers of protocols informed by the latest scientific and medical knowledge,” CLIA said in a statement following the release of the CDC order. “We will continue to evolve our approach as circumstances evolve.”

CLIA also noted the economic toll of the cruising shutdown in North America.

“We look forward to reviewing the order in greater detail and working with the CDC to advance a return to cruising from U.S. ports,” CLIA said.

More than half a dozen major ocean cruise lines already have resumed sailings in Europe and a few other places around the world with new health and safety measures.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature image by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

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