Last year, when the world was still coming to grips with the COVID-19 situation, cruises around the world became superspreaders. Just in the U.S., there were 3,689 reported cases from cruises. Consequently, the CDC issued a no-sail order in March of 2020.
The Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) in October—applicable to ships with a capacity of more than 250 guests—described a phased return to operations. Cruises were asked to establish testing of crew onboard the ships, run simulated voyages, apply for certification, and mitigate risks. However, no timelines were offered on when they could be operable. The CDC also warned passengers that cruises were a high-risk activity, including river cruises.
Six months later, the advice against cruises is still in place with a Level 4 warning, “CDC recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide.” But the cruise industry has had it. With travel picking up after vaccinations, the industry (and some states) are fighting the CDC to allow them to resume operations.
The argument is that a lot has changed since October. Cruise operators have overhauled many aspects of cruising, and inoculations are in full swing. Now that fully vaccinated individuals (around 30% of the U.S. population) are allowed to be without masks outdoors, the rules are changing, so the restrictions with cruises need to loosen a bit, too.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) urged the CDC to lift its orders, so they could plan a controlled return to the waters this summer. “Nearly 400,000 passengers have already sailed from Europe and parts of Asia since last summer, following stringent, science-based protocols that resulted in a far lower incident rate than on land.” The release also poked at the airline industry, “The irony is that today an American can fly to any number of destinations to take a cruise, but cannot board a ship in the U.S.”
The tussle is making news every day—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced in April that the state will file a lawsuit against the CDC. Later, Alaska declared it wanted in, too. Both states are losing money due to the restrictions on sailing and want to revive the economy. According to the CLIA, the cruise industry supported nearly 450,000 American jobs and contributed over $55.5 billion annually prior to the pandemic.
What’s the Current Status?
Cruise ships are not allowed to sail in U.S. waters yet. Smaller vessels are operating on rivers and coastal waterways and many more will resume operations in Alaska in the coming weeks, Gene Sloan, Senior Reporter on Cruise and Travel at The Points Guy, points out.
“The irony is that today an American can fly to any number of destinations to take a cruise, but cannot board a ship in the U.S.”
In a letter that USA Today obtained, the CDC stated that cruising may start in mid-summer if cruise liners comply with the CSO. The letter detailed, “We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity and that the goal of the CSO’s phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities.”
This comes after many meetings between the CDC and industry representatives. It may have given a tentative timeline, but cruise ships will still have to meet requirements to set sail.
Just this April, the CDC talked about the next phase, which involves simulated voyages with volunteers. It also updated the color-coding system, increased the frequency of reporting frequency of cases from weekly to daily, and established a vaccination plan for crew. The CDC is also underscoring the importance of vaccinations by allowing ships to bypass trial voyages if 98% of crew and 95% of paying passengers are vaccinated, USA Today reported.
Sailing This Summer
For more than a year, cruise lines have suspended operations from the U.S., but they’re now starting to offer summer itineraries to Americans. The catch is that you’ll have to fly to set sail. Sloan shares, “Come June, we’ll start to see the big lines such as Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises restarting cruises in North America for the first time in more than a year, with more lines following in the months after that. Initially, the sailings only will be out of non-U.S. ports such as Nassau in The Bahamas and the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda.”
Royal Caribbean is setting sail from Bermuda, Bahamas, England, Cyprus; Silversea has an itinerary planned from Greece; Celebrity has St Maarten, Athens, and England routes. Cruise lovers can also book vacations at sea with Crystal, Norwegian, and Windstar.
Europe is expected to lift its travel ban for fully vaccinated American travelers this summer, so cruise lovers will hopefully be able to embark on voyages from different countries in the region.
Cruising is picking up around the world. In fact, last year “cruises to nowhere” became a travel trend. Operators have taken extensive measures to prevent cases on board, including reducing capacity, tests before boarding and after disembarkment, quarantining of crew, and social distancing on board (buffets are no longer self-serve). The CDC has recommended vaccination for passengers and crew, and many cruise lines have already made vaccination mandatory for guests.
Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea, Viking, Virgin Voyages, and Windstar Cruises require guests to be fully vaccinated—the conditions differ depending on location and guests (full list here). They may also require tests before boarding and on the voyage, masks in public areas, and social distancing, along with other measures such as vetted shore excursions and reduction in capacity.
Understanding the Risks
Do vaccinations completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19? An infection prevention epidemiologist, Dr. Saskia Popescu explains, “This [vaccination] could definitely decrease the risk onboard, but it doesn’t totally eliminate it and it’s important to communicate that to passengers, especially if they have vulnerable folks at home.” She adds that vaccination is just one of the many strategies, and until global vaccine delivery and equity, public health interventions will play a big role in preventing spread.
The aviation industry has seen signs of recovery. More than one million people were screened by TSA every day last month. The CDC has also updated its guidelines for fully vaccinated travelers, impressing that it was safe to fly domestically. Cruises are demanding the same treatment as airlines, but the two experiences can be different.
“This [vaccination] could definitely decrease the risk onboard, but it doesn’t totally eliminate it and it’s important to communicate that to passengers, especially if they have vulnerable folks at home.”
Dr. Popescu, who’s also the Assistant Professor, Biodefense Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and has worked extensively on infection prevention, makes it clear. “Flying tends to be a shorter duration and airplanes have great ventilation, in addition to masking requirements. This will post a challenge for sailing as those safety measures are not always in place. That being said, being on deck is a great venue for distancing and fresh air. I worry most about those activities below deck or indoors where eating/drinking means unmasked time with varied distancing and ventilation for long durations of time.”
If you’re booking a seacation this summer, make sure you check the lists of mandates decided by the cruise liner and ask what will be their plan if there’s a case detected on board. If it requires flying to another country to embark, understand the destination requirements (vaccine, quarantine, negative test) and book your travels accordingly.