U.S. Cruises Can Resume in Mid-July—if Most Onboard Are Vaccinated

The CDC’s latest guidance is forcing cruise lines to make some difficult decisions regarding their vaccination policy for passengers, including what to do about unvaccinated children.

U.S. Cruises Can Resume in Mid-July—if Most Onboard Are Vaccinated

Will U.S. cruises finally set sail this summer after being on ice for more than a year?

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has clarified its stance on vaccines for passengers and crew on cruise ships, opening a possible road to resumption of U.S. sailings as early as mid-July. The catch is that cruise lines that want to be among the first to sail will have to commit to vaccine requirements for guests.

In a four-page letter sent to cruise lines last week and obtained by AFAR, the CDC clarified some of the agency’s rules for restarting sailings from the United States. The agency says ships that can show that 98 percent of crew and 95 percent of guests are vaccinated will not have to undergo a rigorous round of test cruises with volunteers to prove the worthiness of their health and safety procedures—as outlined in the agency’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), which was first issued in October 2020 and updated with greater detail on May 5, 2021. In the latest update, the CDC further clarified its complicated requirements for the test cruises, which could begin as soon as June.

Royal Caribbean called the CDC’s latest guidance “transformational,” while the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents the majority of the world’s cruise lines, said it was “encouraging.”

However, Norwegian Cruise Line is the only major cruise line that has thus far said it would require all passengers to be vaccinated (other more boutique lines have also implemented vaccination policies, along with some larger cruise lines for specific international sailings). Norwegian outlined it vaccination strategy in plans it submitted to the CDC in April, hoping for a July 4 return to the open water. Norwegian’s vaccination policy is currently slated to be in place until November.

Carnival Corporation, with brands including Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Seabourn, has not taken a position on mandatory vaccines. Royal Caribbean has committed to vaccines for guests ages 18 and up on sailings this summer in the Caribbean and Europe, but the line has not revealed its U.S. startup plans.

Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean, responded to the latest CDC letter on his Facebook account calling it “great news” and a “commitment to the resumption of cruising this summer.”

Last night, we received great news from the CDC who expressed their commitment to the resumption of cruising this... Posted by Michael Bayley on Thursday, April 29, 2021

To vax or not to vax is a debate each line will have to decide internally and then report its decision to the CDC.

Crew vaccinations don’t appear to be a major issue. In fact, Port Canaveral, the Port of Miami, and the Port of Galveston have all set up vaccination stations for crew in recent days to help. Royal Caribbean says a survey of crew found a large majority are willing to be vaccinated.

Requiring passengers to get shots is something else. Among the issues for lines that attract a family crowd is that COVID vaccines are not even available for kids under 16 at the moment and will soon only be available to kids 12 and older. (Younger kids will likely be able to get vaccinated sometime later this year.) The 5 percent leeway from the CDC would mean only a very limited number of unvaccinated youngsters onboard.

The vaccination issue is complicated. Royal Caribbean has done surveys that show more than 80 percent of guests who have booked cruises this year already have been vaccinated or expect to be vaccinated before they set sail (the percentage rate rises with age). Holland America Line and Seabourn both sent surveys to past passengers last week asking, among other things, if they would be more likely to cruise on a ship with passengers who are fully vaccinated or not—the lines have not revealed results, but polling passengers is one way that lines can gauge interest on how best to proceed with their vaccination policy.

Cruise lines may decide to start up with a vaccine requirement on some ships, while trying for a COVID-19 testing requirement on others, a pathway to at least get a few ships in the water sooner rather than later.

For cruise lines that don’t want to require vaccinations, they can still go the simulated voyages route—having volunteers onboard and going through a number of steps to prove the effectiveness of their postpandemic health protocols, including testing requirements, social distancing, and quarantine and evacuation procedures. The CDC said it will address applications for these simulated voyages in a matter of 5 days versus the 60 days it previously said it would take the agency to review and approve the submissions.

In its most recent clarifications, the CDC also said that vaccinated passengers would not have to take a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before boarding, although they will have to do a rapid antigen test prior to embarkation.

The latest CDC cruise operations update followed a month of twice-weekly meetings with cruise line representatives, while both Florida and Alaska sued the agency in an effort to get cruise ships back in the water as quickly as possible. Big ships have not sailed from the U.S. since March 2020.

Cruise lines have been pushing for answers, reporting that they need 60 days or more to get idled ships ready to set sail again, including bringing a full contingent of crew onboard, cleaning, and making sure that systems are functioning.

“CDC remains committed to the resumption of passenger operations in the United States following the requirements in the CSO by mid-summer, which aligns with the goals announced by many major cruise lines and travelers,” the agency writes.

Meanwhile, the agency still lists cruising as a very risky activity amid the ongoing pandemic and did not commit to a specific date for the resumption of U.S. cruises. In that regard, the waters for exactly when and how U.S. cruising will restart this summer are still somewhat murky.

>> Next: CDC Says You Can Travel in the U.S. but Not Cruise—So Cruise Lines Are Going Abroad

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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