US cruises are back on after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped its No Sail Order for cruise lines in favour of what it calls a Conditional Sailing Order, whereby cruise lines will be individually assessed before being granted permission to sail.
The move by the CDC clears the way for the reopening of the US cruise industry, albeit in a limited capacity and in a gradual, phased-in manner, based on the ability of each cruise line to meet the requirements set out by the US’ top disease prevention authority.
“The initial phases will consist of testing and additional safeguards for crew members,” the CDC said in a statement. “The CDC will ensure cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for crew while these cruise ship operators build the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers.”
The statement further suggested that although the cancellation of the No Sail Order clears the way for US cruises, it may be some weeks yet before the first cruises depart from American ports.
“Subsequent phases will include simulated voyages to test cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk, certification for ships that meet specific requirements, and a phased return to cruise ship passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members, and U.S. communities,” the CDC said.
“These phases are subject to change based on public health considerations and cruise ship operators’ demonstrated ability to mitigate COVID19 risk,” it added. “The CDC will issue additional orders as needed that will be published in the Federal Register and technical instructions that will be subsequently posted on CDC’s website.”
The framework allows for individual cruise lines to progress through phases at variable paces, so cruise lines that successfully implement the public health measures quickly will be the first to return to service, while others may take longer.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation have a clear advantage in this regard, as some of their subsidiary brands have already returned to service in a limited capacity in Europe, notably Costa Cruises, AIDA Cruises, TUI and Hapag-Lloyd.
MSC Cruises, the world’s largest independent cruise line, has also reintroduced limited cruises in Italy, and has been poised for a return to service in the United States.
The framework acknowledges the ability of some cruise lines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, while also providing a realistic timeline that anticipates COVID-19 continuing to be present and affecting cruise ship travel, the CDC said.
The phased-in approach outlined by the CDC has four stages:
Establishment of laboratory testing of crew onboard cruise ships in U.S. waters
The sailing of 15 simulated voyages designed to test a cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 on cruise ships
A subsequent certification process
A return to passenger services in a manner that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 introduction, transmission, or spread among passengers and crew onboard ships and ashore to communities.
The CDC warned that these phases will be modified based on public health considerations, including the trajectory of COVID-19 transmission and the demonstrated ability of cruise ship operators to successfully employ measures that mitigate the risk of COVID-19.
While the move by the CDC has been welcomed by the cruise industry and its legion of passengers eager to get back to sea, it will require huge commitment from cruise lines to implement the necessary protocols.
The crew testing requirements alone involve four separate provisions:
First, shoreside COVID-19 laboratory screening testing of all crew currently onboard
Second, onboard diagnostic testing capabilities for symptomatic travelers (crew and future passengers)
Third, shoreside COVID-19 laboratory screening testing of all newly embarking crew
Fourth, continued compliance by cruise ship operators with their complete, accurate, and acknowledged No Sail Order Response Plans.