CDC Lowers Warning Level for Cruise Ship Passengers

While the warning is still in place and remains at an elevated “Level 3: High” status, the Centers for Disease Control has lowered its risk assessment for cruise passengers.

That may not sound like much of an improvement, but now instead of recommending that all people avoid cruise ship travel, the health agency has adjusted its warning to only those not vaccinated. In conjunction with that change, the threat level has eased from “Level 4: Very High” down one notch.

CDC cruise ship warning

“CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide,” the agency’s website now says. “Since the virus spreads more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high. It is especially important that people who are not fully vaccinated with an increased risk of severe illness avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises.”

The change comes roughly one week before the first cruise ship with paying passengers is set to depart from the United States. Celebrity Edge is slated to sail on June 26 from Fort Lauderdale. Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas is set to depart on a simulated test voyage on June 20.

In recent days one cruise ship sailed from the Caribbean fully vaccinated and saw two passengers test positive for the virus, while another ship had an outbreak of eight cases among crew members, delaying its anticipated return. The crew members reportedly had received the vaccine but were not two weeks past the injection date needed to be considered fully vaccinated.

In the CDC’s new guidance, the agency laid out several steps that travelers should take if traveling by cruise ship:

  • Get fully vaccinated before sailing (defined as 2 weeks after receiving the shot)
  • Test for the virus 1-3 days before cruising, even if vaccinated
  • Purchase travel insurance before sailing
  • Test again 3-5 days after the cruise if unvaccinated
  • Quarantine for 7 days after the cruise if unvaccinated
  • Quarantine for 10 days if you do not get tested and are unvaccinated
  • Avoid being around those at risk for severe illness for 14 days

If you’ve recently had the virus and overcome it within the past 90 days, then the CDC says you don’t need to test unless you are symptomatic. They do suggest in this case traveling with documentation of your recovery (a positive test result with a letter from your doctor saying you are fit for travel) in case it is needed by foreign officials.

Encouraging Passengers to Sail With the Shot

At this point, the CDC has made it clear that cruise passengers should sail with the shot, although not required it. In addition to this advisory, the agency has laid out rules for sailing unvaccinated, which are much more strict than sailing with the vaccine.

For instance, on vaccinated cruises masks are optional, as is social distancing. Unvaccinated passengers, however, are required to wear masks except for certain situations, and distancing rules are also in place.

Shore excursions for unvaccinated passengers require special protocols, and it’s recommended that “independent exploration” be limited. Those with the shot are free to explore on their own while in port.

Testing before boarding and rules regarding quarantining if you are a close contact of a positive case on the ship are also in place, but only if you are not inoculated. In some cases cruise lines are charging for the testing, including a $136 per person charge announced by Royal Caribbean.

As a result of the different rules (and the overall health of passengers and crew), most cruise lines are opting to sail fully-vaccinated trips at this point. This includes most Royal Caribbean cruises (except from Florida), along with Carnival Cruise Line.

“The current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Carnival President Christine Duffy recently said. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The lowering of the threat level for cruising is a step in a positive direction as trips resume, but news of recent cases on ships and the strong language for unvaccinated passengers shows that the threat of the virus is not yet over.

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