CDC Extends Cruise Ship Health Rules, Intends Voluntary Program Soon

Just days ago, Cruzely explained that the current CDC Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) — the rules outlining how cruises can return to sailing safely — were set to expire November 1, 2021.

At the time, we expressed the opinion that like the previous “No Sail Order,” which was extended multiple times, the Conditional Sailing Order was likely to be extended as well.

Today, the CDC announced exactly that. A temporary extension of the order is now in place until one of the following occurs:

  • 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 based on specific public health or other considerations; or
  • January 15, 2022 at 12:01 am EDT

Voluntary Health Rules Anticipated in January

While it might not be a surprise that the order is extended, the CDC’s new order did contain a surprise regarding what it plans going forward. Once the order expires in January, the agency intends to move to a voluntary program to help cruise ships manage the virus.

“After the expiration of this temporary extension, CDC intends to transition to a voluntary program, in coordination with interested cruise ship operators and other stakeholders, to assist the cruise ship industry to detect, mitigate, and control the spread of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships,” the health agency said.

The CSO is already voluntary for ships sailing from Florida, where recent litigation has turned the CSO from a blanket of requirements to recommendations. Even so, all cruise lines have elected to continue following the order so far.

That could change once the order expires and a completely voluntary program is in place around the country.

The CDC said it asked cruise lines about their interest in participating in the program on a voluntary basis. Of the 11 that responded, only four said they would be interested while seven said they would not. Many lines expressed hesitation to say they would join without having full details.

Hard Numbers on COVID on Cruise Ships

Also in the announced extension was data on cases found so far under the rules of the Conditional Sailing Order.

While the CDC maintains a daily color status for cruise ships that give the public some information about cases, it does not provide any specific numbers. Within the extension, some statistics were finally provided, but details on exactly who (whether passengers or crew) and which ships saw cases were not released.

Overall, the CDC says that since cruising resumed on June 26, there have been 1,359 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on cruise ships following the CSO. This comes during the height of the Delta variant wave, despite the vast majority of passengers and crew being vaccinated.

Some notable outbreaks mentioned by the CDC include:

  • Between August 19 and September 7, one ship reported 105 confirmed COVID cases on four consecutive voyages. This came despite the ship having 100% of crew and an average of 97% of passengers fully vaccinated.
  • Another ship reported 112 cases between August 21 and September 7 among passengers and crew on four cruises despite a 100% vaccination rate for those onboard.
  • From July 24 through August 28, 58 cases were confirmed on another ship despite 100% of crew and roughly 97% of passengers being vaccinated during that time.

Across all the cases reported, there were 49 hospitalizations reported to the CDC.

Given the hundreds of thousands of passengers that have sailed since cruises resumed, these figures are relatively low in the percentage of people impacted.

That’s especially likely compared to other forms or travel and entertainment, which don’t have the strict protocols or vaccine requirements put in place by cruise lines. As well, these figures came during the peak of the Delta variant wave.

Even so, in absolute terms the numbers show that cases can still find their way on ships, despite vaccinations and testing. 

What Can Passengers Expect Going Forward?

With the CDC electing to move toward a voluntary program to control COVID on ships, it sends a strong signal that the agency believes cruise lines are doing an adequate job in protecting the health of passengers and crew. 

So what can passengers expect next? At least for now, it seems little will change given that the order was extended for another two-and-a-half months. 

Should the order expire in January and cases continue to fall on land, it is possible that the onboard cruise experience could change significantly. While cruise ships will continue to keep passengers and crew health the biggest priority, they would also seem to be free to adjust their health protocols on their own timeline.

That could mean potentially easing restrictions around masks, testing, and more, assuming that a cruise line is comfortable that the conditions warrant such a move. As with everything we’ve seen, expect the virus to dictate how cruise lines respond.

You can read the CDC’s extended order here.

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