In another major step to return to sailing, the CDC has updated its rules regarding virus testing. Now, if a passenger is fully vaccinated, then they no longer have to be tested before boarding or disembarking at the end of the cruise.
The new update comes from the CDC’s Operations Manual, a document that lays out the rules and requirements for life onboard cruise ships whenever they do return to sailing. This document was released about two weeks ago, but since then it has been updated significantly.
Most notably, with its first release the Operations Manual scarcely made any reference to vaccines or vaccinated passengers. Even if you were fully protected against the virus, the CDC made no difference in how you could enjoy yourself on the ship. The original document even went so far as to require masks by the pool, no matter if you had the shot or not.
Through multiple updates, however, that’s changing.
Already the mask rules have been eased for vaccinated passengers, as has what protected passengers are allowed to do in port (they can now venture out on their own instead of having to be in a “bubble”).
Now, the eased testing rules lift another major rule that had been enforced with the Conditional Sail Order.
Will Cruise Lines Scrap Testing Though?
For months the cruise industry has pushed for new standards and protocols to sailing, and the bedrock on which these rules were built was testing all passengers before they board.
In fact, cruise lines like Norwegian planned to sail fully-vaccinated cruises at first, along with meeting the testing requirement. That essentially put in two layers of protection for people on the ship — something that’s simply not seen anywhere else in the travel industry.
What’s yet to be seen, however, is if cruise lines will lift the testing requirement following the CDC change, or continue with it. On one hand, lifting the requirement would make cruising that much closer to getting back to normal. On the other, continuing to test all passengers would be among the best ways to ensure no cases make their way onto the ship.
Either way, non-vaccinated passengers are still required to be tested by an NAAT or antigen viral test, according to the CDC. The antigen tests are also known as “rapid” tests.
Cruise lines appear to like the news, as it is a major hurdle potentially lifted. On Facebook, Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley posted the following:
“Late last night we received multiple updates to the CSO from the CDC. All reflect the significant progress made with the vaccines. Reading the updates last night and this morning give me increased optimism. Today the light at the end of this long dark tunnel is bright. One step at a time!”
Can Cruise Lines Require Proof in Florida?
There is still one major hurdle regarding proof of vaccination. Most notably, Florida has a law that doesn’t allow businesses to require proof of a shot in order to receive services.
So while the CDC is making a return much simpler if a passenger has received the dose, the state of Florida makes that more difficult.
This has put cruise lines in the middle. At least one company has said they may even skip sailing from Florida unless some sort of agreement is worked out.
“We’ve had discussions with the governor’s office. Those continue. It is a classic state versus federal government issue. Legally, lawyers believe that federal law applies and not state law. I’m not a lawyer. And we hope this doesn’t become a legal football or a political football,” said Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. CEO Frank Del Rio on a recent investor call.
“But at the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can’t operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states we do operate from, and we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that would otherwise go to Florida.”
“We certainly hope it doesn’t come to that. Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It’s a very lucrative market. It’s a close drive market. But it is an issue. Can’t ignore it.”
It’s not clear exactly how this will be resolved. Florida’s leadership has pushed hard to get back to sailing, going so far as filing a lawsuit to allow cruising to return. As well, the state benefits economically from cruises coming back.
At the same time, the cruise lines benefit from sailing from Florida, where they have large operations. In our opinion there is reason to come to a compromise on both sides of the issue.
We’d be surprised if cruises choose to skip sailing from Florida, but it does seem clear any return in the months ahead will need to be with vaccinated passengers. The CDC is simply making it much easier to sail again if passengers have the dose.