Cruise business in the U.S. could be back in the water soon, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released final guidelines for ships to perform trial voyages with volunteer passengers that would demonstrate their COVID-19 safety protocols.
At the same time, the CDC gave cruise lines a workaround to simulated voyages if they committed to requiring vaccinations from most of its crew and passengers.
All major cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Disney, Norwegian and Carnival, have not been able to sail from U.S. ports because of the pandemic since March 2020. The extended halt in the cruise industry has severely impacted Port Canaveral, Port Miami and Port Everglades, from which nearly 60 percent of all cruise sailings depart.
Ships were placed under a no-sail order that lasted through October 2020 but have since been under the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing order.
That order lays out more than 70 steps cruise lines would have to take in order to get ships certified to begin voyages with paying customers. It wasn’t until last week, though, that the CDC issued its final set of guidelines to complete the process for simulated sailings, the precursor to final certification and ability to get back to business.
The first possible test sailing can’t happen until at least 30 days after a cruise line notifies the CDC, so it won’t be until June at least.
“CDC expects to quickly approve applications that are both complete and accurate,” according to the information posted on its website.
The guidelines, though, also offered an alternative to cruise lines, stating they could simply attest to the CDC that 98 percent of the crew are fully vaccinated and submit a plan that would limit cruise ship sailings so its passengers are 95 percent verified as having been fully vaccinated.
For those that opt to go with simulated sailings, cruise lines must submit a copy of the health warning volunteers will get that advise them “they are participating in health and safety protocols that are unproven and untested in the United States for purposes of simulating a cruise ship voyage and that sailing during a pandemic is an inherently risky activity.”
All passengers must provide either proof of being fully vaccinated or if not vaccinated, proof from a health-care provider or self-certified statement that they have no medical conditions that would put them at high risk for a severe COVID-19 infection.
The CDC recommends sailing at least three days with two stops and with at least 10 percent passenger capacity. During the voyage, the lines must modify meals and entertainment to allow for social distancing but also open up normal cruise ship offerings including casinos, spas and fitness centers to ensure safety protocols are effective.
If the ship allows excursions, it has to restrict them to guided tours only with just passengers and crew from the ship and must follow social-distance, face-mask and other public-health measures.
The lines will also have to ensure they can handle suspected COVID-19 cases including testing and quarantining both on board and at the ship’s varied ports of call.
Certification will be done on a ship-by-ship basis. Once a sailing is complete, the CDC expects the cruise lines to perform an assessment and identify deficiencies.
CDC officials had indicated last month that cruise lines could be sailing again from U.S. ports as early as mid-July but still following safety protocols laid out by the conditional sail order, which remains in place until Nov. 1, 2021.