CDC Extends No Sail Order, Delaying Cruise Ships' Return

File image courtesy PortMiami

Published Apr 10, 2020 5:42 PM by Allan E. Jordan

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has extended its “No Sail Order” for all cruise ships in American waters, casting further doubt on the cruise lines’ recently revised mid-May target to resume service. The CDC’s actions followed after several other jurisdictions also extended the timeline and requirements for the resumption of cruises.

The latest actions came as a surprise based on the continuing global focus on containment and mitigation efforts for the novel coronavirus. In recent days, the CDC had also updated its recommendations to “help US cruise ship travelers (passengers and crew) get home as quickly and safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Those guidelines said that the cruise lines are responsible for treating all ill or infected patients, including those who need hospitalization. It added the required use of private transportation or charter airplanes to transport people leaving the ships, as well as the use of a face mask or cloth face covering and maintaining social distancing.

In the four weeks since the cruise lines announced their voluntary pause in operations and the CDC issued its first No Sail order, nearly all cruise ships have disembarked their passengers. The last cruise ship likely to reach a U.S. port is Princess Cruises’ Pacific Princess, which is expected to make a technical call this weekend in Honolulu before proceeding to California to disembark her remaining passengers. The majority of her passengers had left the canceled world cruise in Fremantle, Australia on March 21, but 115 passengers who did on meet the fitness standards for air travel or had pre-existing medical conditions still remain aboard. 

Internationally there are also a few cruise ships still at sea. Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 is currently sailing off the west coast Africa heading to Southampton, England, transporting a small number of passengers who for similar reasons had not been able to make return flights from Australia. This weekend, P&O Cruises’ Arcadia and Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ Columbus, both carrying passengers, are due to arrive in England after completing long voyages from the Indian Ocean. 

In renewing its previous March 14 No Sail Order, the U.S. CDC cited ongoing public health concerns, including “recent incidences of reported COVID-19 spread onboard cruise ships” like the Costa Magica, Costa Favolosa, Celebrity Eclipse, Disney Wonder, Zaandam, and Coral Princess. Previously, the CDC reported a small number of cases compared to the total number of cruises operating from U.S. ports. Between mid-February and the end of March, the CDC cited a total of 28 incidents aboard 21 cruise ships sailing from the U.S. ports that involved COVID-19. Eleven of those incidents reported the virus aboard the cruise ship. In the remaining 17 cases the CDC was notified about travelers who had symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days after disembarking, though other sources of transmission after the voyage could not be ruled out.

“We are working with the cruise line industry to address the health and safety of crew at sea as well as communities surrounding U.S. cruise ship points of entry,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement accompanying the announcement on Thursday.  

The CDC order also requires the cruise lines to develop, implement and operationalize within seven days an “appropriate, actionable, and robust plan to prevent mitigate, and respond to the spread of COVID-19 on board cruise ships.” The plans, to be approved by CDC and the USCG (Coast Guard), should among other things address: monitoring passengers and crew and medical screenings; training crew on COVID-19 prevention; and managing and responding to an outbreak on board.

The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) issued a statement in response to the CDC order noting that it takes responsibility for protecting public health on board. The association added that as an industry, the cruise lines had submitted proposals “that are far reaching in prevention, detection, and care – and, importantly, would be led and funded by the industry.”  CLIA also said that its members are “concerned about the unintended consequences the No Sail Order issued on April 9 has in singling out the cruise industry.”

The new CDC No Sail order will remain in effect until either: the expiration of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ declaration that COVID-19 constitutes a public health emergency; the CDC Director rescinds or modifies the order; or it expires in 100 days. Similarly, Australia ordered that foreign-flag cruise ships should return to their port of origin in effect stops cruises until at least June 15, while New Zealand closed its ports to cruise ships through June 30. Canadian ports are closed to cruise ships with more than 500 passengers through July 1, 2020, and around the world many other ports are also closed.

“Tough decisions will need to be made at some future point in time regarding when and how much capacity to bring back,” Chris Woronka, research analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote in a report to investors. Woronka recently told investors, “We currently assume essentially no sailings until at least June, and we generally expect capacity to be down 80-85%+ for the calendar 2Q, with calendar 3Q down at least 40-50%, and calendar 4Q likely down 25-35%.”

The return of the cruise ships will be “probably a phased resumption focusing on heavily discounted short cruises to rebuild public confidence,” predicts Andrew Coggins, a professor of management at Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York. “How fast that can be done will depend on the nature of the lay-ups . . . As to when, it's too early to say. We haven't reached the eye of the storm yet, let alone sailing out of it.”

The efforts by CDC and other jurisdictions, however, may further delay the lines’ plans to resume cruising. In addition to successful containment and mitigation efforts for the novel coronavirus, the cruise lines will also need to regain the support of travelers and the authorities around the world by developing enhanced protocols and medical procedures for the safety of the passengers, crew and the ports they visit.

Allan E. Jordan is a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive Magazine.