It’s now official. More than two years after the CDC stepped in, creating programs and rules for cruise ships to follow to sail again, the agency is dropping its now-voluntary Covid program for cruises.
In a posting on its website today, the agency says that the “CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships is no longer in effect.” This comes roughly one year after cruise ships first returned to sailing, but during a time when all ships have likely cases onboard, according to the health agency’s most recent color status report.
Why This Program Was Huge for Cruises
The CDC’s program underwent a number of significant changes as cruise lines and the world at large battled the pandemic.
However, since being implemented, it has laid out the protocols for ships to sail again. This meant covering everything from testing to what to do if there was an outbreak on the ship to contact tracing and much more. Many of the procedures and policies included had actually already been suggested and implemented by the cruise lines on their own.
Back in early 2022, the program shifted to voluntary, whereby cruise lines sailing from the United States could decide to opt in to the CDC’s measures. Every major cruise ship decided to join the voluntarily and continued to follow the guidance.
Each ship was also tracked under the CDC’s Cruise Ship Color Status report, which assigned a color status to the ship based on the reported cases onboard.
Now the entire program is no longer in effect:
So why make the change? According to the CDC ‘s website, the agency says that while it works closely with the cruise industry, ships have the tools to combat the virus on their own.
“Cruise ships have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs,” the CDC website now says on a page dedicated to health on cruise ships. “Additionally, cruise travelers have access to recommendations that allow them to make informed decisions about cruise ship travel. While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward.”
That same page also lays out the CDC’s suggestions for passengers planning to take a cruise. Among those recommendations are to be sure to be up to date with the vaccine, self-isolate and report symptoms to the medical staff, and get tested 3-5 days after the cruise.
Color-Status Tracking Also Removed
In addition to retiring the COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, the CDC also has done away with the color-coded system for tracking cases on ships.
While specific case numbers were not released, the CDC assigned a color to each ship based on daily reports submitted by cruise lines. Green meant no cases, while yellow, orange, or red, meant likely cases onboard.
Notably, this means there is now no public reporting of ships with possible cases. The CDC website says that “cruise travelers have the option of contacting their cruise line directly regarding outbreaks occurring on board their ship” if they want to know more about cases.
Historically, however, cruise lines have been somewhat reluctant to share case count numbers. (The CDC does say that cruise ships will continue to report cases to the agency.)
The removal of the color-coded system also comes as the number of ships with possible cases has risen steadily. In recent weeks the number of green cruise ships has fallen to zero, and the latest CDC report showed all 95 cruise ships tracked had orange status, indicating 0.3% or more of passengers and crew onboard had cases if the ship was sailing with passengers:
What Will This Change Mean for Passengers?
On one hand, the change from the CDC is somewhat surprising given that there has been a steady number of cases on land (and at sea), despite vaccines. However, the trend around the world — and in the United States — has been a relaxing of rules seen during the height of the pandemic.
For instance, the U.S. recently dropped testing rules for flights into the country while mask rules have also eased. Meanwhile, some cruises outside the United States have even dropped testing requirements to board their ships.
So what will this change mean for passengers?
While this change has just occurred, it wouldn’t surprise us to see cruise lines sailing the United States to start easing rules in the near future. In most cases the cruise experience today is very similar to what it was before cruises paused. Ships are sailing full, masks aren’t required, and social distancing isn’t required.
What is required, however, are tests before boarding and vaccinations. These are two areas where we think cruise lines could relax protocols.
As mentioned, some cruise lines have already announced they no longer require testing on some cruises. This includes Norwegian Cruise Line, which has done away with pre-cruise testing starting August 1, except when sailing from a U.S., Canadian, or Greek port.
If the United States now lets cruise lines manage their own Covid rules, then it seems likely that this testing rule could be lifted by cruise lines. And while we’d be surprised if vaccination requirements are lifted just yet, the current strain of Covid appears to be less severe than with other variants, even though it does spread easily.
Bottom line: For those wanting cruising to get completely back to normal, the CDC’s action is a major milestone, despite Covid still being active. While cruise lines may not ease their testing and vaccine rules overnight, the CDC’s change does make it more likely in our opinion.