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The CDC Says Cruises Can Start Again—With a Long List of Requirements

By Michelle Baran

Oct 31, 2020

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It could still be awhile before cruises actually sail away.

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It could still be awhile before cruises actually sail away.

From carrying out simulation cruises with volunteer passengers, to mandatory COVID-19 testing and sailings limited to 7 days, getting cruises up and running amid the pandemic will be no small task.

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The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday issued new guidelines to cruise lines for obtaining a “Conditional Sailing Order.” The detailed path forward for cruising comes as the agency’s No Sail Order for cruise ships is set to expire on October 31—and what it asks of cruise lines is nothing short of a Herculean effort.

According to the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order, cruise lines will need to pass through four phases before being able to resume passenger operations:

  • Establish testing capabilities for crew and passengers both onshore and onboard.
  • Conduct “simulation” cruises with volunteer passengers to prove the cruise line’s ability to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard (this is what it sounds like, literally a sort of test-run cruise with volunteers agreeing in writing to participate and to the risks involved—results will be provided to the CDC).
  • Complete a certification process (heaps of paperwork and signatures).
  • Start operating passenger cruises again, with numerous stipulations in place.

Once they pass through all four of these phases, cruise lines will be able to operate with these standards in place:

  • Cruise lines must inform all prospective passengers of the risks of cruising during COVID-19.
  • Cruises must be limited to no more than seven days.
  • Cruise lines must test all crew and passengers for COVID-19 on the day of embarkation and on the day of disembarkation—results must be procured before either crew or passengers can board or depart the cruise.
  • Any crew or passenger who reports symptoms must be immediately provided with rapid-result COVID-19 tests. Close contacts of those with symptoms must be tested as well.
  • Cruise lines must report all test results to the CDC.
  • Face masks and social distancing must be mandated on ships.

The CDC said it arrived at its decision to provide a framework for a return of cruising based on several factors. One of them was an onslaught of input. On July 20, the CDC asked the general public, those in the cruise and hospitality industries, and seaport authorities to submit comments, opinions, and information regarding how and whether to restart cruising amid the coronavirus pandemic. During the 60-day comment period nearly 13,000 comments were received.

Approximately 75 percent expressed support for the resumption of passenger cruising in the United States. Most, however, said cruising should proceed only with increased health screenings, testing, mask use, social distancing, and enhanced public health capabilities onboard. Approximately 25 percent of respondents said cruising should be delayed until a vaccine is widely available.

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The CDC considered the responses as well as research that examined previous COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships—including the 712 passengers and crew among the total 3,711 people onboard the Diamond Princess in Japan who in January were ultimately confirmed to have COVID-19, 9 of whom died. The CDC cited an article published in the Journal of Travel Medicine that analyzed the Diamond Princess case and other cruise ship outbreaks and found that the heightened rate of transmission onboard cruise ships is due to several factors, including the high population density on ships and the fact that crews live and work in close quarters.

Given the known risks, but also the potential to curb some of those risks, the CDC stated that it chose to proceed with a Conditional Sailing Order versus extending the No Sail Order or allowing cruising to resume without any public health oversight.

Many of the standards the CDC is asking of the cruise lines had already been agreed upon by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest group of oceangoing cruise lines, in September. The organization has adopted a mandatory set of health protocols that members must implement to begin what the organization calls a “highly controlled resumption of operations.”

CLIA members agreed to suspend cruise ship operations from U.S. ports until October 31, 2020, and have adopted a list of guidelines that cruise lines will need to adhere to in order to sail.

The core guidelines for safe cruising according to CLIA are:

  •     Testing—Testing of all passengers and crew for COVID-19 prior to embarkation
  •     Mask-Wearing—Mandatory wearing of masks by all passengers and crew onboard and during excursions whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained
  •     Distancing—Physical distancing in terminals, onboard ships, on private islands, and during shore excursions
  •     Ventilation—Air management and ventilation strategies that increase fresh air onboard and, where feasible, using enhanced filters and other technologies to mitigate transmission risk
  •     Medical Capability—Risk-based response plans tailored for each ship to manage medical needs, dedicated cabin capacity allocated for isolation and other medical procedures, and advance arrangements with private providers for shoreside quarantine, medical facilities, and transportation
  •     Shore Excursions—Shore excursions will only be allowed based on the cruise operators’ prescribed protocols, and strict adherence will be required by all passengers—passengers will be denied reboarding if they don’t comply.

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“With enhanced measures in place, and with the continued guidance of leading experts in health and science as well as the CDC, we are confident that a resumption of cruising in the U.S. is possible to support the economic recovery while maintaining a focus on effective and science-based measures to protect public health,” CLIA president and CEO Kelly Craighead said in a response to the CDC’s issuance of a Conditional Sailing Order on October 30.

>> Next: Cruise Lines Announce Plans for Restarting Sailings in 2020

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