After more than a year of no sailing, recent modifications to the Conditional Sail Order — as well as comments from the CDC — offer hope that U.S. cruising could return soon. In fact, the possibility is that they could return this July.
But according to comments from one major cruise company, it could be vaccinated cruises that return before unvaccinated trips.
Here’s the situation…
On Wednesday night, the CDC sent a letter to cruise industry players outlining a number of clarifications and modifications to its Conditional Sail Order. Among the items mentioned were fully vaccinated passengers being able to take a simpler COVID test before boarding, and updates to rules regarding quarantining for passengers if they are a close contact of a positive case.
But there were also some bigger changes that could lead to a faster return of cruises. First, the CDC said that cruise lines could forego the simulated test cruises required by the Conditional Sail Order if 98% of the crew and 95% of passengers are vaccinated.
This removes a major step within the guidelines, including the 30-day notification requirement that is required for the test cruises.
In addition, the Conditional Sail Order also requires the lines apply for a certificate to sail, which is required 60 days before the first anticipated sailing. The new rules from the CDC cuts that down to just five days.
In other words, if a cruise ship sails where both passengers and crew are fully vaccinated, then the timeline to return appears sped up by nearly three months with the new modifications.
During a recent investor call Royal Caribbean executives laid out what might happen.
“There will be really two pathways,” said Royal Caribbean International President Michael Bayley. “One pathway for vaccinated crew and largely vaccinated guests that meet the threshold that [the CDC] define, and that would mean that there wouldn’t be a requirement for a simulated voyage, et cetera. And there would be a different expectation on protocols and planning. It’s a faster route.”
“For ships that wouldn’t meet that threshold for whatever reason, there would be a different timeline and a different set of protocols and requirements.”
The company’s executives did go on to clarify that there is still plenty of uncertainty about the specific rules and changes, as they were just released. Still, they were optimistic that sailing could return, hopefully by mid-July.
“I think we need to make clear that we emphasize… there’s still a lot of uncertainty about this,” Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain added. “And I don’t think you should think of these as two completely divergent processes. Obviously, just as there are in other areas of society, you treat people who have been vaccinated different than the situations where you don’t have vaccinations. But what is nice about this is that… both are viable pathways under the CDC letter that we got.”
Royal Caribbean Group isn’t the only industry heavyweight encouraged that cruising could return sooner. Canaveral Port Authority CEO Captain John Murray released the following statement in light of the update:
“This is very exciting news. Finally, the CDC has responded to the cruise industry with game changing guidance to restart cruising in the U.S. This newly defined approach includes common sense recommendations, including CDC’s focus on cruise passengers that drive-in for cruises, which could expedite the resumption of cruise operations at Port Canaveral.”
As for a return date, the CDC and cruise executives have both pointed to mid-July as a possibility. Royal Caribbean’s Bayley even called the timeline “very realistic.”
Still More Hurdles to Iron Out
Given the new modifications, it’s obvious there is a big emphasis placed on sailing with vaccinated passengers and crew. That’s where things might get complex.
For instance, rates of vaccination have slowed down, with only about 55% of American adults receiving at least one shot. Meanwhile children aren’t eligible for the dose right now. Those groups combine to be a large chunk of potential passengers that would be excluded from sailing if vaccines are required.
For their part, passengers and crew seem open to having a vaccine to sail. Royal Caribbean Group said that of the customers it has surveyed, roughly 80% said they are already vaccinated or plan to get the shot. And of the crew surveyed, 98% said they were open to the vaccine.
There are also some legal issues that could come into play. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that bars businesses from requiring customers to give proof of vaccination. A bill making the order permanent is in the Florida Legislature. It’s not clear if that would mean cruises from Florida can’t require the shot to sail.
Bottom line, there are still plenty of details that need to be figured out. The good news is that the CDC and cruise industry seem to be moving forward on getting cruises back on the water, possibly this summer.