Cruise Industry “Dismayed” by CDC’s Decision to Extend Travel Advisory

CDC renews cruise travel advisory and protocols
Five cruise ships docked in Antigua in December 2021 (Global Ports Holding)

Published Feb 10, 2022 6:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

The advisory for travelers to avoid cruises at this time was renewed on February 9 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while the health authority also continues to refine its recommendations and protocols for cruises. Yesterday’s announcement came as the overall case rate for COVID has been on the decline in the U.S. and many state and local authorities have moved to end renewed protocols, prompting the cruise industry to respond saying it was “dismayed” by what it viewed as unnecessary and discriminatory actions by the CDC. The industry’s strongly-worded response highlighted the multi-layered mitigation measures which the cruise lines content are effective and should be a model for others.

“Against this backdrop, we continue to be dismayed by the CDC’s decision to maintain any Travel Health Notice for cruise,” wrote Cruise Lines International Association, the industry trade group. “Regrettably, upon initial review, the latest CDC guidance appears out of step with the actual public health conditions on cruise ships and unnecessary in light of societal trends away from more restrictive measures. We are confounded by the CDC’s imposition of even more complex and unwarranted measures which ignore empirical evidence that the industry’s protocols have provided a greater level of COVID mitigation than most any other setting.”

The CDC raised the cruise industry to a Level 4 Very High rating on December 30 while the Omicron variant was causing a dramatic spike in cases across the United States. At the time, the CDC’s reporting system showed that the more than 100 cruise ships reporting to the agency had all reported cases of the virus within a week’s time. Currently, 63 cruise ships remain above the threshold established by the CDC for investigation and monitoring, while 27 are below the threshold, and 19 are reporting no recent cases of the virus. 

The CDC’s renewed advisory says if people chose to cruise, they should be fully updated on their vaccinations, use masks and social distance onboard, test before and after their cruise, and if not fully vaccinated quarantine for five days when they return home. “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines,” the advisory warns.

The renewed warning came as the CDC also released further updates on its new voluntary program for cruise ships prompting industry observers to point out inconsistencies in the CDC approach. After the Conditional Sailing Order expired on January 15, the CDC gave the cruise industry the option to voluntarily participate in the protocols. While strongly encouraging the cruise industry to join, the CDC reports only 20 of the 103 cruise ships have opted in (none have officially opted out). Cruise lines have until February 18, 2022, to inform CDC if they are participating in CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships and as of February 22, any ship that has not responded will be moved to a gray classification to show they are not participating in the program. 

The revisions to the CDC’s protocols are consistent with its advice that everyone eligible should receive booster shots for their original COVID-19 vaccination and that nearly all ages are now eligible for vaccination. The revised cruise ship protocols introduce the highest category for ships where 95 percent of passengers and crew are “up to date”, i.e. received boosters, with this lowering the requirements for quarantine if someone tests positive or is exposed as well as eliminating recommendations for masking and social distancing. For ships where 95 percent of passengers and crew are vaccinated but do not have boosters as well as ships not having vaccination requirements, the stricter guidance remains. Other elements of the previous protocols regarding pre-testing, simulated cruises, and the standards for quarantine cabins were also removed in the voluntary protocols.

CLIA in its response highlights that nearly all cruise ships are operating with close to 100 percent vaccination rates compared to approximately 63 percent on land. They also note that the infection rate on cruise ships is low and hospitalizations are 80 times lower than on land in the U.S. Overall the cruise industry remains committed to maintaining its high standards and mitigation protocols, although several firms including Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have indicated that they plan to return to the levels prior to the spread of Omicron. Norwegian recently announced that it would end its mask mandate and begin accepting a limited number of children under the age of five that are not vaccinated.

The cruise industry continues to find itself at odds with the CDC. Industry executives have recently said they are planning to have most or all ships in service by the summer of 2022 and were confident that they could build back to 100 percent occupancy levels this summer. It is unclear what steps will be required for the CDC to lower its current advisory on cruise travel.