CDC Ends Program for Cruise Ships – What Does This Mean?
Effective as of 3pm on Monday, July 18th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has terminated its program for cruise ships. As you might imagine, this announcement created a lot of excitement but also some confusion. Here are the facts and how this will affect those with cruises currently booked or those considering making a new reservation.
WHAT WAS THE CDC’S CRUISE SHIP PROGRAM?
The CDC’s program for cruise ships was a set of instructions originally called the “Conditional Sail Order” and was the guidelines under which cruise ships could operate when sailing in the waters of the United States. These instructions outlined the health and safety protocols that cruise passengers and crew would be required to follow for the vessels to operate within the United States (either when visiting a U.S. port or when sailing from one). It is important to understand that the cruise lines were REQUIRED to follow these protocols to resume operations.
The “Conditional Sail Order” replaced the “No Sail Order” which essentially shut down the industry in early 2020. The “Conditional Sail Order” was transitioned from a mandatory set of requirements to a set of “voluntary” guidelines in January of 2022. Most cruise lines opted to participate in the “voluntary” program and continued to follow the CDC’s guidance even thought it was not mandatory. These protocols included strict vaccine and testing requirements.
During both the mandatory and voluntary phases, the cruise lines continued to report any onboard cases of COVID-19 or any other illnesses (like the norovirus) to the CDC, as they had done prior to the pandemic. The sunsetting of the CDC cruise program is a testament to the industry’s dedication to health and safety and confirmation of the fact that the onboard protocols suggested by the CDC and implemented by the industry are working.
WHAT HAPPENED ON MONDAY?
On Monday, July 18th, the CDC announced that as of 3pm ET, their cruise ship program would be terminated and the agency would only be issuing “guidelines” for cruise travel, similar to what they issue for all other sectors of travel. This was positively received by the cruise lines and cruise industry, which felt that it had been held to a higher standard than other sectors of travel. For example, cruise ships with fully vaccinated passengers & crew (who had also been tested prior to boarding) were being turned away from ports that were allowing visitors to arrive via air travel without either of those protocols (testing or vaccines) being required.
The CDC is also disbanding its maritime unit and will revert to a traditional oversight role, similar to what it had in place pre-pandemic.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR CRUISES GOING FORWARD?
While the CDC has sunset its cruise program, it has not yet issued the new guidelines for the cruise industry. Those are expected to be released soon, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Wednesday, July 20th). Once they are released, they will be analyzed by the cruise lines and the industry as a whole before any reactions or adjustments are made. It is expected that the new guidelines will have suggestions for testing and vaccination requirements, although it is not known what those suggested protocols will be.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) will make recommendations to its membership (which consists of all of the major cruise lines and many of the niche products as well) based on the suggestions in the new guidance document. CLIA expects that its US-based ships and lines will study the guidelines and adjust as needed, minimizing the effects on voyages to the Caribbean, Canada, and Alaska, among others. From a global perspective, CLIA expects to issue new guidelines to its members sometime in September.
It is important to point out that while there are headlines that read “cruise line XYZ is dropping testing requirements” this currently only pertains to certain lines and voyages outside of the United States. As of this writing, none of the major US-based cruise lines have made any adjustments to their vaccination or testing requirements. It is also worth noting that this does not mean the cruise industry will become unregulated or stop reporting health information to the CDC.
When and if new guidelines are released that pertain to our customers, we will reach out directly to you with information specific to your booking. If a cruise line makes major changes to its policies, we will post them either in a new blog post and/or on our social media pages. Please do not accept as fact any information regarding policy changes for your upcoming travels unless you hear them directly from us or from the supplier. There will no doubt be many misleading headlines and articles written. Please consider the source before accepting the information as factual.
READING THE TEA LEAVES
It is important to note that what follows is speculation based on the current facts, trends, and unconfirmed information coming from various sectors of the cruise industry.
Since we have not read the actual CDC recommendations, we can only speculate as to what they will contain and how the industry and more specifically, the cruise lines, will react.
The first thing that must be said is that COVID-19 is still with us and must continue to be managed. We do not expect the cruise lines to simply drop their current protocols and return to pre-pandemic policies anytime soon. Instead, as they have done with the overall re-start since the summer of 2021, we expect them to take a measured and phased approach to removing, as practical, the vaccination and testing protocols.
As we mentioned earlier, some cruise lines have already dropped pre-cruise testing requirements for European sailings. We expect that this will likely also be the first major change in protocols in the United States. Although we cannot predict the timing of this change, we do believe it will be the likely first step. It is possible that pre-cruise testing could be dropped entirely, or it may transition to a requirement only for those who sail without being fully vaccinated.
We do NOT expect the vaccination requirements to be completely dropped in the short term, but it is possible (perhaps even likely) that cruise lines may lower the threshold for the number of unvaccinated guests. For most sailings, the maximum allowed number was 5% of the total passenger count. We are beginning to hear rumblings that this number may lower to 10% or even more, allowing more unvaccinated guests to sail. If this does happen, it is possible that they would be required to undergo pre (and possibly during or post) cruise testing, plus they might also have some restrictions in place that would not apply to vaccinated guests. It is also likely, as is the current policy with many lines, that any unvaccinated guests allowed to sail would be required to carry a level of insurance that would cover any necessary medical evacuations from a foreign country should they test positive.
This is a huge step forward for the cruise industry and will most likely lead to the end of pre-cruise testing and, eventually, the relaxing or perhaps even elimination of the vaccination requirements. The former will likely happen in the coming weeks and months, while the latter may take much more time.
We will continue to keep you updated. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments or on our social media and we will do our best to answer.