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CDC Update: U.S. Cruises Could Resume as Early as This Summer

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published on April 30, 2021. It has been updated to reflect the CDC's latest guidance, released on May 5 and May 12.

After continued calls for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to allow cruise travel to resume from the U.S. as soon as possible, the government agency finally gave a glimmer of hope for resumption starting this July.

“Over the past month, senior leadership from the CDC has met twice weekly with representatives from cruise lines to discuss the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO),” according to a statement from the CDC. “Within these meetings, participants asked questions and discussed the fastest path back to sailing without compromising safety. Today, in response to the industry’s feedback, the CDC announced five key clarifications with the existing CSO framework.”

While the hope from many industry insiders, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., was a lifting of the CSO in its entirety, the following five revised rules do make it easier for the cruise industry to resume soon:

First, ships may now bypass simulated voyages and move directly to open-water sailing with passengers if a ship attests that 98% of its crew and 95% of its passengers are fully vaccinated.

In addition, the CDC announced that it would review and respond to applications for simulated voyages within five days, down from the anticipated 60-day waiting period. This puts cruise ships closer to open-water sailings sooner.

The CDC will update its testing and quarantine requirements for passengers and crew to closely align with its guidance for fully vaccinated persons. Fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to undergo Nucleic Acid Amplification Testing (NAAT); they may now take a simple viral test (NAA or antigen) upon embarkation. This testing change is for the restricted revenue sailings in the fourth phase of the CSO.

When it comes to ports, the CDC clarified that cruise ship operators may enter into a multi-port agreement (as opposed to a single-port agreement), provided that relevant port and local health authorities are signatories to the agreement. Such multi-port agreements may be particularly suitable if one port has limited medical or housing capacity and a nearby port is able to supplement these capacities.

Finally, on the topic of quarantine housing, the CDC clarified guidance on ventilation systems and the ability for local passengers to quarantine at home if they are within driving distance.

At first glance, it looks like points one and two contradict each other — with the first eliminating the need for simulated voyages and the second again asking for it. While the CDC did not specifically provide additional clarity on this matter, presumably such test sailings will only be required if a ship does not meet the previous COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

The Vaccination Requirement Question

Most cruise lines have already stipulated that vaccinations will be mandated of passengers and crew, at least to a large degree (and in some cases, for everyone onboard). But some — mainly Carnival Corporation brands, with the exception of Seabourn Cruise Line — have stopped short.

“If a particular country that we’re cruising to requires vaccinations, initially we would consider fully vaccinating the ship for a limited time,” Gus Antorcha, president of Carnival’s Holland America Line brand. “However, there are people who, for whatever reason, can’t take the vaccine or don’t want to. Are we the only industry that will never allow those people to stay on our ships and enjoy a vacation? That’s not right.”

In particular, the question of vaccines directly affects children younger than 16. Specifically, if those under 16 are not yet approved to take a COVID-19 vaccine, will they be unable to board a cruise from the U.S.? It would appear that families with young kids could still cruise, provided it’s on a vessel that conducted the aforementioned simulated voyages. But how soon that will be permitted remains to be seen.

Travel Industry Reactions to the CDC’s Updates

Even with the remaining hurdles, the industry response to the new CDC guidance is mostly positive.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners. “Spirits are very high among our travel advisors, cruise line partners and Home Office Team. We’ve all been optimistic, but the latest news has been a significant move in the right direction to a safe return of cruising, and we are highly encouraged for sailings from U.S. ports by mid-July.”

Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, is also pleased. The executive posted enthusiasm for the announcement on his public Facebook page:

“Last night, we received great news from the CDC, who expressed their commitment to the resumption of cruising this summer. This is a result of the consistent conversations we have been having with the agency to determine the best path for our return to service. Thank you all for making your voices heard and for believing in our industry. We will be back!”

As to when cruising from the U.S. might officially start to move forward, the CDC’s statement pointed to summer:

“CDC remains committed to the resumption of passenger operations in the United States following the requirements in the CSO by mid-summer, which aligns with the goals announced by many major cruise lines and travelers. CDC looks forward to continued engagement with the industry and urges cruise lines to submit Phase 2A port agreements as soon as possible to maintain the timeline of passenger voyages by mid-July.”

In the meantime, Cruise Planner’s Fee has some advice for cruise clients. She believes that consumers looking to set sail in the next 18 months should be planning now to take advantage of the best deals.

“This is the time every cruiser has been waiting for,” she said. “As more people are vaccinated and more countries are opening to tourists, Cruise Planners travel advisors are becoming increasingly busy with new bookings.”

Fee adds that once the initial U.S. cruises return, consumer confidence and demand will only increase. In fact, the franchise is now seeing clients make reservations much further out. Specifically, Cruise Planners sales for 2022 embarkations are up by 60% compared to the same period in 2019, which was its best year ever.

“We are encouraged the cruise lines and the CDC are having regular and productive meetings to safely restart cruising,” she said. “Cruise Planners has been supporting recent advocacy efforts to help educate decision makers about the safety measures the cruise lines have proposed and why cruising should be treated like other venues in the hospitality sector.”

More Details Emerge

However, optimism waned on May 5 when the CDC issued additional details about what is required to conduct simulated voyages (Phase 2B) and how to obtain a conditional sailing certification (Phase 3) before regular guests can sail on “restricted passenger voyages” (Phase 4). This technical guidance arrived more than half a year after the conditional sailing order was originally issued in October 2020.

The stipulations of simulated voyages include but are not limited to the testing of embarkation and disembarkation procedures, onboard recreational activities, medical evacuations, isolation and quarantine (on the ship and off), port tours, mask use and physical distancing onboard and onshore, even at private islands.

Of course, aforementioned vaccination standards would allow cruise lines to bypass the simulated voyages, obtain conditional sailing certification and head straight into operating restricted passenger voyages.

Additionally, as expected, any self-serve food or beverage options also need to be removed. And although face coverings are not required when inside one’s own cabin nor in pools, they are still mandated at most other times. During dining, masks can only be removed when briefly eating or drinking, as “removal of the mask for extended meal service or beverage consumption would constitute a violation of this Order,” according to the CDC.

The latest guidance, however, eases some restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers. In regards to face coverings, inoculated passengers can forgo masks when participating in outdoor activities, except in crowded settings, including extended meal service or beverage consumption. And when onshore, vaccinated guests can take self-guided or independent tours so long as they wear face coverings indoors. Additionally, it is now only a recommendation that those not vaccinated be prohibited from such independent exploration on land.

For the time being, there is little indication as to exactly when such restrictions may be further relaxed or removed entirely. In a press release, the CDC said it does not anticipate releasing any additional documentation regarding Phase 4.

“Instead, CDC will be updating online documents to incorporate changes to quarantine, testing, color status and lessons learned from simulated voyages,” the statement read.

Frank Del Rio, corporate CEO of Norwegian, is displeased with initial mandates — as issued before they were specified for vaccinated travelers and detailed for shore excursions.

“We're perplexed, flabbergasted, outraged,” he said during the company's latest earnings call. "It's preposterous and not in the spirit of where the country is heading. We need to get all these ridiculous regulations, this overreach, eliminated.”

By comparison, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is cordial but certainly aware of the challenges that remain.

“The technical instructions issued by the CDC on May 5 confirm that there is a lot of work to do in order to achieve the goal of sailing from U.S. ports this summer. We appreciate the CDC’s expressed commitment to this goal and look forward to further discussions on the details of the instruction.”

Del Rio now questions the likelihood of being able to return to U.S. service by July or even August, at least for Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises brands.

"At first glance, it appears the path forward is a bit rockier and a bit steeper than originally expected,” he said.

In the meantime, Charles Sylvia, vice president of industry and trade relations for CLIA, encourages travel agents and industry insiders to take action by going to the association’s action center and asking lawmakers to prioritize the responsible resumption of cruise travel from the U.S. by this summer.

As he puts it in a recent tweet, “do not let up the pressure until you see those ships departing U.S. ports with your own eyes.”

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