CDC Will Switch to Voluntary Health Protocols for U.S.-Based Cruises
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that cruise ships departing from U.S. ports will be transitioning to a new voluntary health and safety program. The agency’s controversial Conditional Sailing Order, which had drawn much criticism and prompted the lawsuit from Florida and Texas, will be permitted to expire at the end of this week while cruise lines are being encouraged to register for the new voluntary effort.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky appeared at a U.S. Senate Hearing on January 11, where she admitted that the agency has seen a 30-fold increase in Covid-19 cases aboard cruise ships over the past two weeks due to Omicron. As previously reported, every cruise ship sailing from U.S. ports with passengers has recently reported cases of the virus prompting CDC investigations and monitoring. In the last two weeks of December 2021, the CDC said it received reports of nearly 5,000 COVID cases aboard the 110 cruise ships it currently monitors.
Dr. Walensky said during her testimony that the CDC believed the cruise industry “has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding” the standards of the CSO. She said that “we’ve worked collaboratively with the industry,” and while the CDC would continue to emphasize the importance of the protocols to the cruise lines that the industry has shown attention to health and safety.
Under the new voluntary program, the CDC still expects the cruise lines to require vaccinations for crew and 95 percent of passengers or to implement stricter health protocols and to continue steps such as masks in public areas of the ships. The CDC will continue to review the cruise lines’ health protocols and receive reports of the virus aboard the ships, but the threshold for investigations will be relaxed from the current 0.01 percent of passengers to 0.03 percent. Ships that do not provide their health protocols to the CDC however will be identified in the color-coding system while the other elements of the program will continue.
Cruise lines will gain greater freedom to self-police their operations including ships that do not require full vaccinations will be able to operate without first conducting simulated voyages. The cruise lines will also be able to resume more elements of onboard service such as self-service food and beverage operations but they must continue the enhanced medical services including isolation for passengers and crew that test positive for the virus.
The industry has in recent days taken it upon itself to adjust operations based on the high rates of infection across the U.S. and the increased cases on ships. Royal Caribbean International announced that it was temporarily removing three of its ships from service and yesterday, Norwegian Cruise Line also canceled additional cruises. Norwegian had canceled current cruises on two of its ships and yesterday added three more ships, with all of them now scheduled to resume sailing at the end of January. Other ships delayed their scheduled returns to operations. Holland America Line also canceled a cruise due to sail on one of its ships with rumors that just 500 passengers were confirmed for the cruise on a ship with a normal capacity of 2,100 passengers. Other ships continue to sail with anecdotal reports of passenger capacity as low as 30 percent.
The CDC director told the hearing she could not predict what would happen in a few months but short-term she said she the agency would continue to work closely with the cruise industry and was confident in the current health protocols. The CDC, however, at the end of 2021 also issued an advisory saying regardless of vaccination status travelers should avoid cruises during the current surge of the COVID-19 virus. The CDC has not changed that recommendation.