On April 2, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance for cruise lines regarding what it will take for them to be allowed to sail out of U.S. ports again. The CDC provided a framework that would eventually lead to test cruises on which cruise lines would prove, with the help of volunteers, that their health and safety procedures on the ships and in ports will prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The CDC suggested that vaccination of cruise passengers would be key in the resumption of safe cruising but stopped short of saying all cruise passengers would be required to be vaccinated. What the new guidance did not do is lay out any specific timeline for resuming cruises from U.S. ports.
On Tuesday, the CDC hinted that cruises may be able to restart soon, however.
The agency’s plans for allowing cruising to restart “aligns with the desire for resumption of passenger operations in the United States expressed by many major cruise ship operators and travelers, hopefully by mid-summer,” the CDC said in a statement to Bloomberg in response to immediate cruise industry criticism of its latest plan.
Big ships have not sailed from the United States in more than a year. And the updated guidance was the first movement from the CDC on the matter since it issued a Conditional Sailing Order on October 30, 2020. That order, which expires this November, effectively bans ships with more than 250 passengers and crew from sailing from U.S. ports.
The new cruise guidance came the same day the CDC deemed general travel for those who are fully vaccinated as “low risk.” The cruise industry frustration boiled over.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which had called on the CDC to allow cruises to resume in July, said in a statement that the new instructions were “burdensome, largely unworkable and seem to reflect a zero-risk objective rather than the mitigation approach to COVID that is the basis for every other U.S. sector of our society.”
Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holding Ltd. (which owns Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Oceania Cruises), boldly responded to the CDC with a proposal to resume sailing from the U.S. on July 4. He said all guests and crew would be fully vaccinated, which he said meets the agency’s new guidance for travel.
On Tuesday, Harry Sommer, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said places the company is eyeing for a domestic restart include Hawaii, Alaska (although cruises there are currently stalled by a ban on cruise ships in Canada, a required stop due to U.S. cabotage laws), and Bermuda sailings from New York or Boston.
Carnival Cruise Line, which had vowed to sail only from its 14 U.S. homeports this summer, threatened to move ships out of the country.
Others have taken the foreign route as well. In recent weeks, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, and Windstar Cruises have all announced plans for summer sailings from Caribbean ports. Norwegian Cruise Line and Viking Ocean Cruises joined the group this week. Consequently, Americans can cruise this summer from the Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Maarten, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. All the lines are requiring adult guests to be vaccinated; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are not requiring vaccines for those under age 18. Additional COVID-19 PCR tests are part of the plan, as required by the islands.
Several cruise lines have also announced summertime sailings open to Americans in the Greek Isles and Iceland.
For now, the only cruises operating in the U.S. are small ships that can sail under the CDC’s guidelines of no more than 250 passengers onboard. River cruises have resumed on the Mississippi as have some coastal sailings along the East Coast and in Alaska.
As for big ship sailings out of U.S. ports, the situation remains in limbo as cruise lines continue to wait for further guidance and approvals from the CDC. Until then, no one truly knows yet how this summer will shake out for cruises that originate stateside.