10 New Rules Cruise Lines Must Follow to Sail Again

We all knew that cruises would be drastically different when they return.

Just like we’ve seen everywhere from restaurants to movie theaters to shopping malls, the “normal” way of doing things has been turned on its head. Now masks, social distancing, and dividers are commonplace, when just a year ago they were largely unheard of.

To combat the health crisis, the world has simply had to change.

Now that the CDC has let the “No Sail Order” expire, replacing it instead with a pathway to return to sailing, it is also requiring cruise lines to make drastic changes if they want to sail again.

Of course, many of these changes are ones we’d all expect. It includes things like facemasks and social distancing. But within the 40-page “Framework for Conditional Sailing” are dozens of steps that cruise lines must take in order to sail again from the United States.

These new rules and policies can be major, but it’s what has to happen for cruises to resume safely.

Obtain a Certificate to Sail Again from the CDC

Ship returning to sailing

Having a certification from the Coast Guard doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But what about a certificate from the CDC to sail again? No one would have guessed that just a year ago.

But that’s exactly what’s needed according to the framework laid out by the agency. Technically called a “Conditional Sailing Certificate, the CDC now requires cruise ships be certified before sailing again.

“A cruise ship operator shall not commence or continue any passenger operations in U.S. waters without a COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate issued by the CDC,” the order laying out the framework says.

This certificate is granted only after cruise lines meet a number of requirements (many of which are covered below), and complete an application. Even after it is granted, cruise lines must continue to be in compliance, or risk losing their certificate and the ability to sail.

Weekly Testing of Crew for COVID

One of the first steps in the path back to sailing is that cruise lines must implement weekly testing of their crew on the ship. 

“Laboratory testing for every crew member must be conducted on a weekly basis or at such other intervals as required by CDC in technical instructions or orders,” the agency says. “CDC may conduct oversight of specimen collection, testing, and laboratory procedures, as necessary.”

Putting regular testing in place for the crew represents a solid foundation for a return to sailing. The crew — which stays on the ship — must be healthy if there is any consideration of keeping all the passengers that come and go healthy as well.

Agreements Must Be in Place With Ports and Health Authorities

View of Port of Miami

While the CDC is taking a big step in overseeing cruise lines’ return, there are a number of authorities required to “sign-off” on a ship’s return. Notably, the CDC is requiring cruise lines to have signed agreements in place with ports and local health authorities.

These agreements include a “medical care agreement” between the cruise line and health care entities that covers taking passengers and crew needing medical attention to local hospitals. As well, a “housing agreement” must be signed between the cruise line and a facility on land to isolate COVID cases. Finally, an agreement between the cruise line and port must be in place to determine how many ships may operate at a port so as not to overburden the area should there be cases on a cruise.

Simulated Voyages Now Required Before Real Sailing

One new requirement is that cruise lines wanting to sail in the United States must complete “simulated voyages” first. These trips are exactly what they sound like — practice cruises that give the crew a chance to do a dry run on the new procedures before paying passengers return.

The simulated voyages will have volunteer passengers that are at least 18 years old. These passengers must not have any prior medical conditions that put them in a higher-risk group for COVID.

The practice cruises must mimic a real trip, including embarkation and debarkation procedures, activities like dining and entertainment, and even shore excursions. Onboard, the cruise line must put in place the policies it will have in real cruises, including social distancing, facemask rules, and testing of passengers for the virus.

New Travel Advisory Required on Marketing Materials

Rules for the cruise lines don’t just have to do with what’s happening onboard the ship. Even cruise line marketing has to get an adjustment.

Buried within the framework is a rule that “the cruise ship operator must in marketing materials, on its website, and in offering for voyages, notify prospective passengers prior to accepting a reservation of any CDC travel advisory, warning, or recommendation relating to cruise travel.”

Currently, that advisory says for passengers to defer all cruise travel.

Whether or not posting this sort of advisory will impact potential cruisers has yet to be seen. Given the pandemic, however, having passengers have all the information from authorities is important.

No Cruises Longer Than Seven Days

A week-long cruise is a classic staple of sailing. And thankfully with the new CDC rules, it’s still allowed. However, longer trips are not in the cards right now.

In the guidelines laid out is a rule that cruise lines cannot sail or offer to sail a trip longer than seven days.

The rules go on to say that the CDC may change the number of days allowed based on “public health considerations.” So in theory this rule could be lifted if the situation improves.

What’s not clear is if passengers are allowed to book back-to-back cruises, thereby staying on a ship (or ships) for longer than seven consecutive days.

Virus Testing on Embarkation Day and Debarkation Day

By far the biggest step that cruise lines are taking to ensure the health of everyone on the ship is universal testing. The industry as a whole committed to 100% testing of passengers before they board. While that doesn’t ensure no one on the ship won’t have COVID (even complete testing could miss cases or cases could appear days after someone tests negative), it is a major step.

The CDC is taking things even further. It requires cruise lines to test passengers and crew on embarkation day before they are allowed to board (cruise lines prior had mentioned having a test within a few days of boarding).

As well, the CDC requires lines to test passengers and crew leaving the ship on the day of disembarkation as well. So each passenger will have at least two tests on their cruise.

There’s no word yet on the logistics of testing the entire ship before they are allowed to leave, but it could end up taking longer to get off the ship if waiting on results.

Cruises Must End if a “Threshold” of Cases is Detected

Norwegian Sun leaving Port Canaveral

One of the possibilities of the Healthy Sail Panel (the joint coalition between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian to come up with new safety procedures) was that if there were a small number of cases detected on a cruise ship, then those passengers testing positive could be isolated, and the cruise could continue.

The CDC framework states that “if a threshold of COVID-19 is detected on board the cruise ship during a voyage, the voyage will be ended immediately, and the ship returned to the U.S. port of embarkation…”

On the way home, sick passengers or crew are to be isolated while other passengers are quarantined. As well, future trips on the ship will be cancelled until allowed to resume by the agency.

We’ve contacted the agency to find out exactly what the threshold number of cases to end a cruise is, but they told us that it will be outlined in the future.

Obviously, the CDC wishes to avoid what we saw before the cruise suspension where cases on ships increased as passengers stayed aboard and interacted.

If Cases Are Found, Passengers Must Take Non-Commercial Transport Home

So what happens after a case is found on the ship and the passengers return to port? Letting them all go their separate ways home could lead to lots of contacts between potentially at-risk passengers and others.

In the case that there is a threshold of cruise cases, the rules state that passengers on the ship are to use “noncommercial transportation or other transportation” to get back home.

If someone drove to the port and can simply walk to their car, that doesn’t seem to be a big issue. However, in places like Miami where many passengers fly in for their cruise, it’s yet to be determined exactly how all those passengers will get back home. It would be difficult and expensive to charter private aircraft for all passengers who flew to the port.

The CDC now also requires cruise lines to disclose to passengers in marketing materials that if there are cases on their cruise, “their subsequent travel, including their return home, may be restricted or delayed.”

Embarking Crew Must Quarantine for Two Weeks

If a crew member is coming onto the ship from land, then they must not only be tested for the virus, but also quarantine onboard for 14 days, no matter whether they test positive or negative. This allows time just in case the virus is incubating before becoming traceable.

If a crew member tests positive when boarding, they must be isolated until the CDC guidelines for ending the isolation are met.

Either way, crew heading to the ship when cruise lines begin to ramp up the staff in anticipation of a return look to be in for a long wait before they can get to work.

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