CDC lifts 'no sail' order, but cruise lines won't be returning to U.S. ports any time soon

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IMAGE VIA CARNIVAL CORPORATION
  • Image via Carnival Corporation
After a No Sail Order that lasted more than 230 days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has finally laid out plans to allow cruise lines to sail from U.S. waters once again.

While the removal of the order was applauded by cruise lines, the Conditional Sailing Order the CDC replaced it with means cruise lines have a massive uphill battle ahead of them before any passengers can set foot on a cruise ship.



The 40-page Framework for Conditional Sailing Order document lays out a four-step process to bring passengers back to U.S. sailings. While the order acknowledges “several cruise ship operators have taken steps to improve their public health response to COVID-19,” its requirements go far beyond anything cruise lines have previously proposed.

PHOTO VIA CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE/FACEBOOK
  • Photo via Carnival Cruise Line/Facebook

This spring’s high-profile incident in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to block a cruise ship from coming into a South Florida port after multiple crew members and passengers fell ill, claiming that some of the passengers and crew “are not even Floridians,” seems to have impacted the CDC’s plans.



Before any sailings, cruise lines need a medical care agreement with local health care entities. A separate housing agreement must be in place if passengers or crew require a shoreside facility for isolation and quarantine. Port authorities must also work with cruise ship operators to ensure multiple ships out of the same port do not “overburden the public health response resources of any single jurisdiction in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak,” which will likely dramatically limit the number of ships any one port can host.

Crew members must receive a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test on the day of embarkation, then quarantine on the ship for two full weeks. All crew members are then required to partake in weekly PCR tests, with the CDC able to virtually observe the testing if it so requests. All cruise ships wishing to sail must have CDC-approved RT-PCR testing equipment on board. A week before any tests are collected, cruise ships must inform the CDC of the testing procedure. Cruise lines wishing to resume operations must add the equipment and test crew members within the next 60 days.

This 60-day requirement will be especially difficult as Enhanced Data Collection reports are required for at least four weeks before a ship re-entering U.S. waters, meaning any cruise ship that’s not already within the U.S. won’t be able to enter until at least the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Once all of these items are approved, cruise lines must then show they’re ready to sail with “simulated voyages” – each ship is required to have at least one such voyage. The CDC requires 30 days' advance notice of any such trips, which pushes any actual sailings into December. The simulated voyages will use volunteers to practice various scenarios, including isolating positive cases and quarantining all passengers and crew. These simulated voyages must adequately represent an actual sailing with private island shore excursions, onboard activities, and full embarkation and disembarkation.

PHOTO VIA DISNEY CRUISE LINE/FACEBOOK
  • Photo via Disney Cruise Line/Facebook

After these first two steps, the cruise ship must be certified by the CDC before welcoming passengers.

No cruises from the U.S. can be longer than seven days, and the CDC reserves the right to shorten cruise itineraries at any time. All passengers must be screened prior to boarding the ship, on the day of embarkation and on the day of disembarkation. The test results must be available before passengers are released to travel to their final destinations after disembarkation. Additional tests may also be required during or after a voyage.

While no occupancy limits were mentioned, cruise ships must ensure social distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings for all passengers and crew. The order specifically says meal service and entertainment venues must be modified to ensure social distancing. All marketing materials must include “any CDC travel advisory, warning, or recommendation relating to cruise travel” and include warnings that if a threshold of COVID-19 cases is detected, the cruise will end immediately with subsequent travel possibly restricted.

If positive cases occur on a ship, the cruise line must transport all guests and crew to shoreside accommodations using non-commercial transportation. If this threshold of onboard infection rates is met, all future voyages of that ship must also be canceled. The order notes that nearly every aspect of the framework could be changed or amended by the CDC at any time as conditions warrant. Also, a cruise ship can approve or deny any permit application and revoke any application at any time in the future.

“CDC and the cruise industry have the same goal: a return to passenger sailing, but only when it's safe. Under the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, cruise lines have been given a pathway to systematically demonstrate their ability to sail while keeping passengers, crew and their destination ports safe and healthy,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, co-chair of the Healthy Sail Panel, in a press release announcing the CDC plan.

IMAGE VIA NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE
  • Image via Norwegian Cruise Line

The CDC's complicated, multi-step plan is just one aspect that cruise lines must address before any passengers board ships. Each international destination is also coming up with its own criteria, which may include requiring health insurance or health travel visas for all passengers and their own PCR testing. In some scenarios, a seven-day cruise with three ports could require upward of half a dozen tests.

In speaking to Cruise Radio, cruise industry expert Stewart Chiron expressed concern about both the CDC requirements and the bubble-like port activities that cruise lines would be required to provide in international ports of call. With many locals reliant on the cruise traffic, walling off these passengers from locals could cause some locals to fight back, possibly causing protests to erupt in some ports. While this may be addressed by only sailing to private ports of call, the option of just sailing between U.S. ports remains unlikely.

A passenger vessel services act from 1886 means ships that fly international flags can’t transport passengers between U.S. ports without visiting an international port. This eliminates most Alaska cruises, as Canada’s ports aren’t set to reopen until the end of February, with some potentially not reopening until 2022. Many Caribbean nations have also been hesitant to welcome back cruise ships. Out of the large cruise ships, only one is registered in the U.S., Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America. That ship holds U.S. registration thanks to its exclusive Hawaii sailings.

Between the 134-year-old Act and the stringent new CDC guidelines, many cruise lines may opt not to restart sailings any time soon. Even before the approval process begins, cruise lines must bring back their crews, many of whom are no longer on board. This could take weeks. Then the CDC approval process will take at least four weeks, if not longer, which could mean very few, if any, cruises will resume in U.S. waters this year. It's likely many cruises will simply opt to wait until less stringent requirements are rolled out.

Carnival has already removed all December cruises from its website and stated on its website, “Carnival Cruise Line will continue to work with the CDC on an eventual return to guest cruise operations. We are evaluating the CDC’s new order that sets out the conditions under which cruising can resume, but there are a significant number of requirements that must be evaluated in the context of our plans to resume operations.” Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean seems to be hoping to temper expectations with a statement shared on its social media that read in part, “While we are eager to welcome our guests back on board, we have a lot to do between now and then, and we're committed to taking the time to do things right.” Royal Caribbean has not said when they plan to resume U.S.-based cruises. Norwegian confirmed they would be continuing to suspend all cruises through at least the end of the year.

Some in the industry are talking about a complete loss of the 2021 season for large swaths of the industry. Florida ports may see some return to cruising in December 2020 or early 2021, but any semblance of pre-COVID traffic is still far from happening.

Even as cruise lines reopen in other parts of the world, in the U.S. thanks to a complete refusal on the federal level to adequately address the ongoing pandemic, as with other parts of the nation’s travel industry, cruise lines are now facing a 2021 that looks a lot like 2020: bleak.



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