Critical of Cruise Lines, CDC Extends No Sail Order

Today the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that it is extending the “No Sail Order” that’s currently in place for cruise lines.

CDC logo

This order is a continuation of one that has been in place since March and was scheduled to end July 24. The new extension will be 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
  • September 30, 2020.

Given the sharp rise in cases of COVID-19 in the United States in recent weeks, many expected that the order would be extended. In a 20-page letter outlining the order, however, the CDC also issued a number of criticisms toward the cruise lines.

CDC Cites a Number of Issues in Cruise Line Response

From March 1 to July 10, the CDC says that there were 2,973 cases of COVID-19 or COVID-like illness on ships. This includes 99 outbreaks on more than 120 ships. Even today, the agency says nine ships have “ongoing or resolving” outbreaks on board.

In the last extension back in April, cruise lines were required to issue a No Sail Order (NSO) response plan. This written plan was required by the government to “prevent, mitigate, and respond to the spread of COVID-19 on board to ensure a safe work environment and disembarkation for crew members.”

Under a section of the order titled “Difficulty of Cruise Ship Operators in Submitting Appropriate Response Plans,” the CDC said that as of April 29, 2020, they had received response plans from seven cruise companies, representing about 110 ships.

However, the CDC said that “the plans as initially submitted by the cruise lines were incomplete and did not fully meet all the requirements of the April 15, 2020 Extension.” One plan even required seven rounds of revisions.

According to the government agency, by July 10, cruise companies had reduced the number of ships they planned to operate in the U.S. to just 49. By that date, only one cruise line with a single ship — Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line — had submitted a response plan that met the CDC’s required elements.

“Examples of Potential Non-Compliance”

Beyond that, the agency listed out numerous issues it has encountered regarding the No Sail Order. In a section titled “Examples of Potential Non-Compliance with the Extended No Sail Order,” the CDC highlighted several instances where it had concerns, dating back to April 2020.

This includes incidents from a number of lines, including Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and Disney Cruise Lines.

Among the issues cited were everything from confirmed cases of COVID outbreaks onboard some ships, to crew not wearing masks, to inadequate distancing during meals.

An example under the “Potential Non-Compliance” section of the CDC’s order.

The CDC also said that of the 49 ships that currently sail or plan to sail in U.S. waters, there are 10 that are “Provisionally Red,” meaning that at least one case of COVID-19 or COVID-like illness has been reported in the past 28 days.

In summation, the Centers for Disease Control put its thoughts bluntly:

“The difficulty to date of cruise ship operators to submit and adhere to appropriate NSO response plans during a time of limited operations, as well as ongoing concerns relating to non-compliance with disease prevention protocols and continued outbreak of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships, highlight the need for further action prior to resuming passenger operations.”

The order went on to say “The Director also finds evidence to support a reasonable belief that cruise ships are or may be infected or contaminated with quarantinable communicable disease. As a result, persons on board or seeking to board cruise ships may likely be or would likely become infected with or exposed to COVID-19 by virtue of being on board at a time when cases are being reported in increasingly significant numbers globally.”

Comments on Plans to Return Sailing Safely

Even with steps that cruise lines have put in place to help create a more healthy atmosphere for passengers and crew, the CDC seems to have found fault.

It specifically mentioned the new partnership between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line and their “Healthy to Sail Alliance.”

This partnership brings together a number of respected experts, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Their plan is to help create steps to sail again safely in the face of the pandemic.

However, the CDC seemed to have issue with the fact that the group’s goal is to provide steps to safe cruising “over the next few months.” As well, with other cruise lines taking their own steps to safety, the agency pointed out the “lack of consensus among cruise ship operators.”

Following the release of the updated No Sail Order, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) — an industry group of which most cruise lines are a member — stated the following:

“As reflected in today’s announcement, CLIA and its member lines remain aligned with the CDC in our commitment to public health and safety. We are also pleased that the CDC has announced its intention to issue a request for information about the industry’s resumption of passenger operations.

“As we continue to work towards the development of enhanced protocols to support the safe resumption of cruise operations around the world, we look forward to timely and productive dialogue with the CDC to determine measures that will be appropriate for ocean-going cruise operations to resume in the United States when the time is right.”

Will Cruises Return After September 30?

While cruise lines could be given clearance to sail sooner, given the language in the CDC’s order and the sharp rise in cases in the United States, it seems reasonable that September 30 would be the earliest they would return to sailing.

In June, CLIA announced its members would stop sailing until at least mid-September. Carnival extended their suspension at that time until September 30, matching the expiration date of the CDC’s new order.

In other words, the actual impact of the No Sail Order extension isn’t too much for many lines and passengers given that cruises were mostly suspended until then anyway. However, only time will tell if cruise lines will be able to return in the fall.

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