CDC Announces Technical Steps Towards Resuming US Cruises 

CDC takes interrim step in cruise guidance
Cruise ships ideal at PortMiami in the summer of 2020 (PortMiami)

Published Apr 2, 2021 7:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

After repeated calls and criticism by the cruise industry, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late on Friday, April 2, issued its second round of guidance for the cruise lines as it slowly moves towards the resumption of cruises departing U.S. ports. Today’s announcement was viewed as an interim step as the CDC also revised its travel guidance for fully vaccinated residents of the United States.

Reflecting the rapid increase in the number of people that are fully vaccinated and new scientific reports, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people (more than two weeks after receiving the final dose of their vaccine) can travel within the United States and do not need COVID-19 testing or post-travel self-quarantine as long as they continue to take COVID-19 precautions such as masks and distancing. The guidance for international travel was also revised to say fully vaccinated individuals can travel internationally without COVID-19 testing or post-trip quarantines, depending on local regulations. The CDC, however, is still requiring negative COVID-19 tests before boarding flights to the US and after returning.

The CDC also issued what it is calling “the next phase of technical guidance under the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.” It was the first update since November 2020, but it falls short of setting a timeline or specific steps for cruises to start sailing from U.S. ports. The CDC repeated that it is “committed to working with the cruise industry and seaport partners to resume cruising when it is safe to do so, following the phased approach outlined in the CSO.”

The CDC said that COVID-19 vaccination efforts will be critical in the safe resumption of passenger operations. As more people are fully vaccinated, the phased approach allows CDC to incorporate these advancements into planning for resumption of cruise ship travel when it is safe to do so. CDC recommends that all eligible port personnel and travelers (passengers and crew) get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available to them.

“Cruising safely and responsibly during a global pandemic is difficult,” the announcement said. “While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, following the phases of the CSO will ensure cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers, and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern.”

In the second phase of the CSO announced today, the CDC addresses requirements for the cruise lines to establish agreements at ports where they intend to operate, implement routine testing of crew, and develop plans incorporating vaccination strategies to reduce the risk of introduction and spread of COVID-19 by crew and passengers. 

The CDC’s specific steps include increasing from weekly to daily the reporting frequency of COVID-19 cases and illnesses, revising the color coding status system introduced in 2020 for cruise ships, and decreasing the time needed for a “red” ship to become “green” from 28 to 14 days based on the availability of onboard testing, routine screening testing protocols, and daily reporting. They addressed materials for agreements that port authorities and local health authorities must approve and are requiring a plan and timeline for vaccination of crew and port personnel.

Without specifying a timeline, the CDC said the next phase of the CSO will include the anticipated trial cruises that will allow crew and port personnel to practice new COVID-19 operational procedures with volunteers before sailing with paying passengers.

Recently, the cruise industry had been vocal in speaking out saying that the CDC was slow to respond and using outdated information that did not reflect the advancements made in the fights against COVID-19. Today’s announcement is seen as a response to the criticism. Small cruise ships under 250 passengers have resumed sailing working with the local authorities, while Royal Caribbean frustrated with the wait, went around the CDC scheduling cruises marketed to Americans on its large cruise ships sailing from the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Europe.