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Just before it was set to expire last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) No-Sail Order was replaced with the new “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.”
Initial reactions to the development were mostly positive following months of extended mandates to pause voyages from the U.S., but the reality of this seemingly welcome news is actually a mixed bag.
The fresh framework is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and technically allows for limited cruises to resume this month. However, there’s a reason why Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. this week announced the suspension of all its Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises sailings until 2021, and why Carnival Cruise Line has taken its remaining December voyages off its website. (Not to mention, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International (except in Singapore as planned for December) canceled their global sailings, and MSC canceled its U.S.-based sailings through 2021, as well.)
In short, the path ahead is still full of roadblocks.
Just nine days before the Oct. 30 framework was released, CDC updated its Level 3 warning to avoid non-essential travel, which is still in place, recommending “that travelers defer all cruise travel worldwide.” This would appear to contradict the “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order” — in practice, CDC advises against cruising currently, but is nonetheless opening the window to its eventual restart.
The challenge now is determining exactly how and when to resume operations. The new order specifies reopening in phases, which is consistent with the industry’s own approach. But it does not provide a detailed timeline, other than to instruct that the framework should expire by Nov. 1, 2021, should it not be nullified or modified by CDC prior to that date.
“CDC and the cruise industry have the same goal: A return to passenger sailing, but only when it’s safe,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, co-chair of the Healthy Sail Panel, in a press release. “Under the CDC’s ‘Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,’ cruise lines have been given a pathway to systematically demonstrate their ability to sail while keeping passengers, crew and their destination ports safe and healthy.”
CDC has outlined a three-step process that must be completed prior to guests boarding ships:- “Cruise ship operators must demonstrate adherence to testing, quarantine and isolation, and social distancing requirements to protect crew members while they build the laboratory capacity needed to test crew and future passengers.”- “Simulated (mock) voyages with volunteers playing the role of passengers to test cruise ship operators' ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk.’” (At least one simulated voyage is required per ship.)- “Certification for ships that meet specific requirements and return to passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members and communities.”
Furthermore, during these initial phases, CDC will update its color-coding system to indicate each ship’s status and enforce the completion of the “Enhanced Data Collection During COVID-19 Pandemic Form” to prepare for surveillance of COVID-19 among passengers.
Of course, all of this is bound to take time, and perhaps more than just a month or two as indicated by the latest round of cruise lines’ self-cancellations.
At least now CDC and cruise industry approaches more closely parallel each other, as well as public opinion. According to CDC’s website, its call for public comments about cruising’s return resulted in approximately 75% supporting a return to cruise travel with COVID-19 mitigations in place.
Unfortunately, delving deeper into the framework document still reveals challenging standards. For one, each individual cruise ship — not line or corporation — that intends to sail from the U.S. must be certified following the aforementioned steps, and only then will it be granted permission to operate so-called “restricted passenger voyages.”
Restricted passenger voyages are defined as sailings that require certain cleanliness standards, including enforcing proper hand hygiene, face coverings, physical distancing and ship sanitation. They also necessitate COVID-19 testing not just at embarkation but also at disembarkation, possibly preceded by a “monitored observation period of passengers prior to embarking” and followed by a “post day of disembarkation laboratory testing of passengers and crew.”
Plus, guests can expect the immediate end to a voyage should COVID-19 be detected onboard; the quarantine of all remaining passengers and non-essential crew (the extent of which is not yet specified); and the potential for restricted or delayed travel home.
Another restriction is that cruise ship operators cannot offer itineraries longer than one week. However, CDC may lengthen (but also shorten) the number of permitted days based on public health considerations and as set forth in technical instructions or other orders.
Hopefully, the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming year, as well as the current success of cruise travel case studies in Europe, will help expedite the timeline of shifting from simulated voyages and restricted passenger voyages to unrestricted cruises.
All of this is to say: We likely will be able to cruise again beginning early next year, but the experience will be rather different.
The DetailsCenters for Disease Control and Preventionwww.cdc.gov