CDC To Allow Cruises to Resume With New “Phased Approach”

For months since the virus outbreak began, the CDC has held in place a “No Sail Order” that prevents cruise ships from sailing from the United States. This order has been extended several times since first being enacted in mid-March.

Now the CDC is letting its latest extension expire at the end of October. It is now looking at steps for a “phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.”

In effect, the ban against cruise ships has been lifted, but there is still a number of steps that cruise lines must take before they can get back to sailing.

Officially known as “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships” the newest CDC order consists of several phases that cruise lines must complete to get back to sailing:

  1. Establishment of laboratory testing of crew onboard cruise ships
  2. Simulated voyages designed to test operator’s ability to mitigate the virus
  3. A certification process to resume sailing
  4. Return to passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates risk of COVID

The initial phase consists of testing and safeguards for crew. According to the new order, the “CDC will ensure cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for crew members while these cruise ship operators build the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers.”

From there, the CDC has said future phases will include “simulated voyages” to test that cruise lines can adequately reduce risk of COVID onboard using proper procedures. These voyages are set to include volunteer passengers in a simulated cruise, complete with embarkation/debarkation and onboard activities like dining and shore excursions.

Should the cruise line pass this step, it will then need to apply for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” before it can sail in U.S. The certificate application will be reviewed to ensure that the cruise line has met all requirements laid out by the framework.

Among other things, requirements include specifying the capacity of the ship, ports of call, voyage lengths, and onboard/shoreside activities — all of which the CDC may limit.

If a certification is granted, the cruise line must still meet standards for sailing.

This includes a number of new rules put in place, including (but not limited to):

  • Cruise lines must notify passengers on its website and marketing materials of the CDC’s travel advisory concerning cruise travel
  • No cruises are allowed longer than 7 days
  • All passengers/crew must be screened for COVID before they embark
  • Tests are required for all passengers/crew on embarkation and debarkation day

The Reasoning Behind the Framework Instead of a No Sail Order

This new framework outlines concrete steps for cruise lines to take to get back to sailing after more than seven months in limbo. While the new rules are strict, they largely mirror steps mentioned by cruise line executives during the past several months for their own plans to return. This includes starting with simulated cruises, shorter itineraries, and universal testing.

One question is why present this framework now, as cases in the United States are spiking to their highest levels since the pandemic began? 

The CDC pointed to several reasons for lifting the “No Sail Order”. For one, they found that the “benefits of this framework outweigh the costs of not allowing cruise ships to sail because it allows for flexibility where cruise ships have taken necessary precautions… while continuing to prohibit passenger operations onboard ships that have failed to implement such precautions.”

As well, the CDC stated that about 75% of respondents in its call for public comment about the resumption of cruises expressed support for doing so, albeit with changes enacted to promote healthy sailing.

It’s also worth noting that while cruise lines have planned to implement unprecedented new procedures to keep passengers healthy, they still were allowed to sail. Meanwhile, places like casinos, bars, and theaters have been allowed to re-open.

When Will Cruises Sail from the United States?

One question that isn’t clearly answered with the framework is a definitive date of when cruises will start back. That’s because the return-to-sail dates will vary, depending on each cruise line’s work with the CDC in meeting these new requirements.

For example, one cruise line might be able to navigate the steps relatively quickly, leading to certification and approval in a relatively short time. Another might have issues with the process, leading to delays. Currently, major cruise lines have trips scheduled starting in December.

Given the long lay-off from cruising, expect the cruise lines to do their absolute best to quickly and efficiently navigate the new framework to return to cruising. That said, it will definitely take some time to satisfy the CDC’s requirements.

It wouldn’t surprise us to see cruises return in the next 45-60 days, with short, initial trips on a handful of ships. However, that is simply a guess.

(Update: After further review of the framework, the CDC has several requirements for submitting documents, including that an application for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate” be submitted at least 60 days prior to the anticipated sail date. Before that application is submitted, however, cruise lines must meet other requirements.  With this in mind, it appears it will be a longer time period — perhaps 90-120 days — before ships return to sailing.)

Cruise line executives have been optimistic that cruises will return before the end of the year, and the rules laid out seem to match with what they’ve mentioned in the past.

From there, a further ramp-up into 2021 for the rest of the fleets seems likely, assuming all goes well.

You can view the CDC framework here.

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