Cruise business in the U.S. could be back in the water soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the final guidelines for ships to perform trial voyages with volunteer passengers that would demonstrate their COVID-19 safety protocols.
At the same time, the CDC gave cruise lines a workaround to simulated voyages if they committed to requiring vaccinations from most of its crew and passengers.
All major cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Disney, Norwegian and Carnival, have not been able to sail from U.S. ports because of the pandemic since March 2020. The extended halt in the cruise industry has severely impacted Port Canaveral, PortMiami and Port Everglades, from which nearly 60% of all sailings depart.
“We’ve got a tremendous lift here in the next few months, just to get the industry back up and running,” said Port Canaveral CEO Capt. John Murray during an interview on FOX Business saying ships will have been out of service for 16 months before a potential July return to any sailing from the U.S. “We’re having some great progress in getting the crews vaccinated. We’re assisting the cruise lines with those efforts and I’m really excited to see this industry back online again.”
Ships were placed under a no-sail order that lasted through October 2020, but have since been under the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing order.
That order lays out more than 70 steps cruise lines would have to take in order to get ships certified to begin voyages with paying customers. It wasn’t until Wednesday, though, that the CDC issued its final set of guidelines to complete the process for simulated sailings, the precursor to final certification and ability to get back to business.
The first possible test sailing can’t happen until at least 30 days after a cruise line notifies the CDC, so it won’t be until June at least.
“CDC expects to quickly approve applications that are both complete and accurate,” according to the information posted on its website.
The guidelines, though, also offered an alternative to cruise lines, stating they could simply attest to the CDC that 98% of the crew are fully vaccinated and submit a plan that would limit cruise ship sailings so its passengers are 95% verified as having been fully vaccinated.
For those that opt to go with simulated sailings, cruise lines must submit a copy of the health warning that advises volunteers “they are participating in health and safety protocols that are unproven and untested in the United States for purposes of simulating a cruise ship voyage and that sailing during a pandemic is an inherently risky activity.”
All passengers must provide either proof of being fully vaccinated or if not vaccinated, proof from a healthcare provider or self-certified statement that they have no medical conditions that would put them at high risk for a severe COVID-19 infection.
Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, said the consumer-focused website’s readers have responded to the guidance enthusiastically.
“Cruisers are eager to return to sailing, and the new guidance lays out a clear path for return,” McDaniel said. ”The potential for summer sailings has lit a passion among our readers – many of whom either already have cruises booked, or are looking forward to making bookings in the near future.”
The CDC recommends cruise lines sail for at least three days with two overnight stays, and with at least 10% passenger capacity. During the voyage, the lines must modify meals and entertainment to allow for social distancing, but also open up normal cruise ship offerings including casinos, spas and fitness centers to ensure safety protocols are effective.
If the ship allows excursions, it has to restrict it to guided tours with just passengers and crew from the ship, and must follow social distance, face mask and other public health measures. If visiting a private island, such as Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, only one ship can be docked at a time.
The lines will also have to ensure they can handle suspected COVID-19 cases including testing and quarantining both on board and at the ship’s varied ports of call.
Testing for COVID-19 before and after will be key to cruise lines getting approval to sail, with more than 75% of test passengers required to submit results within three days of disembarking.
Certification will be done on a ship-by-ship basis. Once a sailing is complete, the CDC expects the cruise lines to perform an assessment and identify deficiencies, which may mean having to repeat a simulated sailing.
CDC officials had indicated last week that cruise lines could be sailing again from U.S. ports as early as mid-July, but still following safety protocols laid out by the conditional sail order, which remains in place until Nov. 1, 2021.
In the meantime, several cruise lines have enacted plans to sail from non-U.S. ports including the Bahamas and Bermuda as well as continuing to roll out sailings in Europe and Asia.
A push from the industry as well as federal legislation and a lawsuit filed by the state of Florida have all targeted the CDC’s shutdown of the industry. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated how he sees the CDC shutdown as unfair.
“I can tell you I want the cruise ships going. I think it’s vital for our economy,” he said. “There’s tens of thousands of folks that are impacted by this issue.”
The state’s lawsuit cites 159,000 people in the state employed by the cruise industry. It seeks to lift the conditional sail order entirely.
DeSantis, who issued an executive order on April 2 and signed a law that goes into effect July 1 that blocks vaccine passports in the state, said any vaccination requirement would be “ridiculous.”
“They’re cruising in other parts of the world where they don’t even have availability of vaccines yet, where they have much higher COVID than in the United States,” he said.
To date, the cruise industry has cited it has sailed with more than 400,000 passengers since last fall with fewer than 50 documented cases of COVID-19.
Port Canaveral’s Murray, though, stated last week that any steps restarting business were welcome, and that cruise ships as international travel entities wouldn’t necessarily be affected by the state’s vaccine passport ban, in the same way airline trips to Europe currently require vaccinations.
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“Everyone in the industry is very engaged and excited that this appears to be a movement that gets us back into the cruising mode by mid-summer,” Murray said.