In just weeks, the CDC’s rules that govern the return of cruise ships are set to expire, opening up the possibility of changes in the sailing experience for cruise passengers.
The Centers for Disease Control’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) for Cruise Ships lays out the requirements for cruise lines in order to sail again. The order was first published in October 2020, along with three different possibilities for when it would expire:
- 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
- November 1, 2021.
Now nearly a year later the health crisis continues to be an issue, but the November 1 deadline is fast approaching.
How the Order Impacts Cruising
The CSO has been instrumental in the return of cruising. The order replaced the previous “No Sail Orders” issued by the CDC that halted cruising altogether. Instead, the order laid out a pathway for ships to resume service with passengers.
Under the framework, everything from simulated voyages to medical facilities required to testing, masks, and social distancing are addressed. In short, this order provides the foundation for cruise ships having the CDC’s blessing to sail again and keeping passengers safe.
While initially frustrated at the slow roll-out of instructions accompanying the order, cruise lines seemingly have come to embrace the Conditional Sailing Order.
In fact, lawsuits filed by the state of Florida against the order turned the extensive rules from requirements into only recommendations for cruises from that state. Even so, cruise lines have continued to follow the CSO on a voluntary basis when sailing from Florida.
Signs of Sailing Safely Under the Order
There are signs that the rules put in place by the CSO and cruise lines are working well. Just like on land, there have been cases on cruise ships. But despite setting sail right at the start of the rise of the Delta variant — and with dozens of ships now carrying passengers — cases on ships appear low in number and quickly contained when found.
Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain shared a few weeks ago that his cruise line sailed with more than 500,000 passengers and only had 141 cases among guests (stats on crew member cases weren’t shared). And while official case numbers are not announced by the CDC, when word does come of cases on a ship, they are typically among only a handful of people.
As well, industry group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) told Cruzely in a statement that worldwide over 2 million passengers have sailed since summer 2020, “with a lower incident rate than we are seeing on land.”
(Note: Ships sailing outside the United States are not subject to the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order.)
Furthermore, the CDC tracks cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters, which provide daily reports to the health agency regarding possible cases on board. From there, a color status is given to the ship based on the conditions during the seven days. The color status varies from green (indicating no possible cases) to orange, yellow, and red. A single case is enough to change the color status of a ship from green to another color.
Currently, around 75% of cruise ships have green status. No ship has received red status, indicating a sustained outbreak onboard.
What the CDC and Cruise Industry Say About the Nov. 1 Deadline
So what will happen come November 1? We contacted both the CDC and the Cruise Lines International Association for any insight.
The CDC simply told us that they “do not have any updates at this time” and to “follow the CDC newsroom” for the latest.
CLIA — which represents the vast majority of cruise lines — didn’t specifically address the November expiration, but told us that its members have “demonstrated time and again their ability to proactively and successfully deploy protocols and response measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 amongst cruise passengers, crewmembers, and the communities they visit.”
“Together with our members, CLIA remains engaged with the U.S. Government, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and will continue to be led by the science and recommendations of public health experts in this dynamic moment, as we have done throughout the pandemic,” a spokesperson told Cruzely.
At least for now, it seems cruise passengers have to wait to see what will become of the order as we approach November.
What We Think Will Happen
In our opinion, however, there are some clues that point to what we think might happen.
First, while the November date is fast approaching, the pandemic is still ongoing. Despite vaccines, cases are still high.
This is similar to what we saw during 2020 where cases were a continual issue. At that time the CDC issued its “No Sail Order” that began in March 2020. It was later extended three more times during the year, with each time the new extension coming just days before the previous one was set to expire.
In other words, given that COVID continues to be an issue, an extension of the Conditional Sailing Order by the CDC wouldn’t be unprecedented.
As well, despite the CSO now being a recommendation in Florida, no cruise line has opted out of complying with the order. So while the opportunity is there for ships to sail without the Conditional Sailing Order, cruise lines have shown they prefer to go along with the oversight and working with the CDC.
Given the current success of returning to sailing under the CSO, we see little reason for cruise lines to “rock the boat” and move away from the requirements.
Bottom line: Don’t be surprised if the CDC’s orders are extended closer to the November 1 deadline. Even if the Conditional Sailing Order is allowed to expire, we’d expect cruise lines to continue to follow the health protocols put in place that have so far allowed cruises to return to sailing safely.