CDC: 'Conditional Sailing Order' allows cruise lines to sail Nov. 1 but it's not likely they will
As the U.S. surpassed 220,000 COVID-19 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance about wearing masks while traveling. USA TODAY
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will allow cruise ships to sail in U.S. waters starting Sunday. But even if they do, passengers won't be waving goodbye from the deck. In fact, the agency hasn't said when they'll be allowed back on board.
That's according to the public health agency's new "Framework for Conditional Sailing Order,"which replaces the eight-month "no sail" order that expires this weekend. Published Friday, it “introduces a phased approach for the safe and responsible resumption for passenger cruises,” the CDC said in a release provided by spokesperson Cate Shockey.
"This 'Framework of Conditional Sailing' lays out a pathway – a phased, deliberate and intentional pathway – toward resuming passenger services but only when it is safe, when [the cruise industry] can assure health and when they are responsible with respects of needs of crew passengers and port communities," Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told USA TODAY.
The first cruises to leave port will be simulation sailings designed to show that ships and crews are in compliance with CDC standards and able to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 onboard.
“During the initial phases, 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," the agency explained.
Subsequent phases will include mock voyages with volunteers such as employees or their family members, Shockey told USA TODAY. Those test voyages will be akin to the shakedown cruises that lines do with any new vessel prior to its official maiden voyage.
"We look forward to reviewing the order in greater detail and working with the CDC to advance a return to cruising from U.S. ports," Cruise Lines International Association, the leading industry organization, said in a statement provided by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, the trade group's vice president of strategic communications.
"This is a potential turning point in the shared perspective between the industry and CDC with a shared set of goals and a commitment to only return to sailing when it’s safe, healthy and responsible," Cetron noted.
In order to resume passenger sailings, according to the order, each ship must earn a "COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate" from the CDC.
"A cruise ship operator must have successfully conducted a simulated voyage or series of simulated voyages demonstrating the cruise ship operator’s ability to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 onboard its cruise ship," the order reads.
Before they begin the process of test cruises, all crew already on board must be tested for COVID-19.
The initial phase, he said, will be crew-centric, making sure that there are proper safeguards and adequate testing capability for workers.
Cruises during the second phase won't carry passengers, either. Crew will have their own test cruises and then a voluntary test cruise phase before ticketed passengers can board.
"This is a phase that has simulated mock voyages of increasing, duration, complexity and numbers in order to test and implement scaling up and feasibility of the plan," Cetron said.
Based on how simulations go, he said the CDC's requirements may change. "This isn’t a race from A to Z. This is navigating a safe path."
Cetron isn't prepared to guess when passenger cruising will actually begin.
"I’m smart enough after 10 months of this pandemic not to speculate like that," he said, likening the CDC's response to an "epic" battle. "It’s basically the virus’ numbers against human ingenuity."
And what happens if a cruise ship tries to skip ahead to a new phase without approval from the CDC?
"You don’t advance along the process," Cetron said. "It’s as simple as that we’re not going to compromise [on] safety, health."
The CDC still advises against cruising
After announcing the "no sail" order's Oct. 31 expiration date, the CDC issued a "Level 3 Travel Health Notice" recommending people "defer travel" on cruise ships worldwide. The Oct. 8 statement applies to both ocean and river cruising, which has already restarted in Asia and Europe.
For those who decide to sail after all, the agency recommended that passengers returning from a cruise ship or river cruise voyage "take extra precautions to protect others for 14 days after arrival."
The health notice also warned people embarking on international cruises or making port calls in other countries that their travel could be impacted should anyone on their ship develop COVID-19. This includes being denied disembarkation, as happened to heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19.
Cruise lines studied up during timeout
Cruising was one of the first casualties of coronavirus, especially among lines that operate in Asia, where the pandemic first took root.
A CDC report revealed that from March 1 to July 10, 2,973 cases of COVID-19 or "COVID-like" illnesses emerged on cruise ships, and there were 34 deaths. During that period, there were 99 outbreaks on 123 cruise ships, meaning that 80% of U.S. jurisdiction ships were affected.
Cruise lines spent much of the ensuing eight-month timeout figuring out how to operate safely once it's allowed to resume sailing in U.S. waters. Earlier this month, CLIA member lines recommendations for preventing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on their passenger ships, including testing, face coverings and temperature checks.
“(We have done) tremendous learning about the virus over these months,” Adam Goldstein, global chair of CLIA, said at a virtual news conference in September.
Cruise line executives are echoing his statement.
"At this time we have every reason to be optimistic that we will be sailing in the U.S. before year end," Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said on an earnings call earlier this month.
And Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group also believes that the industry has found a way to move forward.
"We do believe it is possible to make it that you are safer on a cruise ship than you are on 'Main Street'," he said on an earnings call Thursday.