CDC Outlines Path for Conditional Cruise Restart; Trade Reacts

Queen Mary 2 sails with New York City skyline in background
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) let its "No Sail Order" expire over the weekend, and issued a lengthy document showing what cruise lines can do to return to service from U.S. ports. Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is shown above sailing in New York waters on a previous cruise. (Photo provided by Cunard)

The cruise industry and cruise-selling travel advisors are buoyant after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a “Framework for Conditional Sail Order” on Friday. It's sets forth a path to the eventual restart of cruises from U.S. ports.

The CDC's previous "No Sail Order," which had been extended multiple times since March, expired on October 31.

Working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC issued a new, 41-page document that outlined the extensive framework—rules and procedures—for a phased "restart" approach for cruise ships. Voyages from U.S. ports would be limited to no more than seven days.  

The rules and procedures required by the CDC encompass everything from extensive testing of crew already onboard ships; arrangements with ports and local health authorities; testing of new crew and passengers boarding; securing (by cruise lines) of local housing for isolating any people who test positive and don’t need hospital treatment, as well as their close contacts; simulated voyages with no passengers and more.

“This framework provides a pathway to resume safe and responsible sailing," said Robert Redfield, M.D., the CDC's director. "It will mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and prevent passengers and crew from seeding outbreaks at ports and in the communities where they live."

He added that the CDC and the cruise industry have a shared goal to protect crew, passengers and communities, and will continue to work together to ensure that all necessary public health procedures are in place before cruise ships begin sailing with passengers.

The CDC will help ships prepare and protect crew members during the initial phases by establishing a laboratory team dedicated to cruise ships to provide information and oversight for COVID-19 testing.

That said, while the CDC's decision for a conditional sail order is a path back to cruising, that agency retains its global "Warning Level 3-Avoid Nonessential Travel" for cruising on its Web site. But for the first time in months, the trade say there's hope or getting ships back in the water sooner rather than later; safely carrying guests; and providing strong economic benefits.  

Carnival Triumph New Orleans Dock Carnival Cruise Line Editorial Use Only Copyright by Carnival Cruise Line

The cruise industry now has a path to begin safe voyages with CDC approval. Shown above is a past cruise of Carnival Triumph from the Port of New Orleans.

A Path Back to Cruising

“We are excited that the CDC is giving cruise lines the opportunity to demonstrate that they can sail successfully with specific health and safety protocols in place,” Brad Tolkin, co-chairman and CEO, World Travel Holdings (WTH), told Travel Agent. “This is a very positive step forward in being able to some day return to normal cruise operations.”

Tolkin said that “while there are still many questions to be answered in the coming days and weeks, the most important thing is that the cruise industry now has a path forward and clear guidance on what is needed to resume sailing.” Among WTH’s brands are Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

From the cruise line side, Kelly Craighead, president and CEO, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said that her group looks forward to reviewing the new order in detail. She also said the protocols developed by the Healthy Sail Panel (a joint effort by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings), which were adopted by CLIA’s global board of directors earlier in October, will serve as an important foundation for the resumption of cruising.

“The cruise industry and the CDC have a long track record of working together in the interest of public health, and we look forward to continuing to build upon this legacy to support the resumption of cruising from U.S. ports,” said Craighead.

She also noted that with the enhanced safety measures including 100 percent testing for passengers and crew prior to boarding, mask wearing, physical distancing, controlled shore excursions and other protocols, “CLIA members have gradually resumed sailing in Europe and other parts of the world with success.”

Veteran travel advisor Margie Jordan, vice president at CCRA Travel Commerce Network, Jacksonville, FL, also said she believes the CDC decision is “a step in the right direction for the industry.” She points to MSC Cruises’ successful sailings in Europe this fall: “It can be done. Carefully. But it can be done.”

That said, Jordan doesn’t see the return of mass market cruising with every ship on the sea for quite some time. “But it’s beyond the time for the cruise industry to be allowed to figure out how to operate safely in the midst of the pandemic,” she noted.

Ken Heit, president-owner, Luxury Cruise and Tour Inc., a Frosch agency in Pompano Beach, FL, said the order brings “a new sense of optimism” that cruises will be starting safer and better, and that bookings can be made with the confidence of CDC oversight.

He also said the CDC decision will allow his agency’s “revenue stream to start up again, as my business was literally 'dead in the water' until this ruling,” and the spotlight on the cruise industry now has a positive impact.

In addition, Heit cited “jobs coming back for millions related to the cruise industry” such as onboard crew members, ports of call, food sellers and many others. CLIA’s press statement also cited those economic consequences, noting that “effects are felt in communities across the United States and hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake.”

Detailed CDC Rules

But while the CDC has green-lighted a potential return to cruising at some point, it’s not going to be simple, nor necessarily speedy. Will lines set sail from U.S. ports this year? That remains to be seen, as much is required by the CDC before that.

In fact, Monday Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (NCLH) said it would extend its previously announced suspension of global cruise voyages to include all cruises for Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises that depart through December 31, 2020. NCLH said it will continue to work in tandem with global government and public health authorities and its Healthy Sail Panel expert advisors to take all necessary measures to protect its guests, crew and the communities visited.

As for the CDC rules, here’s some insight. For one ship to receive approval to sail, all crew “already onboard” must be tested using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing, not the quick antigen tests being administered by some lines operating in Europe. 

New crew coming onboard must receive a PCR test on day of embarkation, plus those crew members must be quarantined for 14 days. Once onboard, crew will undergo weekly testing with all results reported to the CDC. Testing for passengers involves quick-result testing at both embarkation and disembarkation, with only those with negative tests being allowed to board. At disembarkation, those who test positive cannot travel to their final destination until they test negative.

Cruise lines will also be required to develop onboard PCR testing capabilities for crew, passengers and close contacts (such as traveling partners or family) in the event people are symptomatic. The CDC’s approval is needed for the testing equipment used, plus the agency wants PCR tests not antigen testing.

For any ships that haven't sailed in U.S. waters after March 14, the cruise line must begin filing Enhanced Data Collection (EDC) reports, and that must occur at least 28 days prior to the ship re-entering U.S. waters.

One of the most challenging rules set up by the CDC is likely the one that requires lines—prior to applying for a CDC "Conditional Sailing Certificate"—to have agreements and approvals from port and local health authorities in any U.S. port where the ship will dock.

Such agreements from public port agencies could require, varying by port, either a public comment/review period or approval of county commissioners, for example. Port authority agreements also must set the number of ships that can be safely accommodated on any given day.

The cruise lines also need to present evidence of: 

  • Medical care agreements that show that local port-area hospitals will accept any people from ships evacuated for treatment ashore
  • Housing agreements—essentially hotel space that’s guaranteed for availability—so any person with a positive test and those in contact with that person can be isolated ashore

Simulated Voyages 

Lines applying for a "Conditional Sailing Certificate" also must apply at least 30 days in advance to operate at least one “simulated voyage” for each ship to demonstrate to the CDC that the line has the ability to mitigate any onboard risks.

Volunteer passengers (18-plus years of age) will participate in the terminal check-in process, dining and entertainment, private island shore excursions and so on. Onboard, volunteers and crew will be required to adhere to standards that include face coverings, social distancing, hand hygiene and more.

Club Orange Restaurant Rendering for new Rotterdam, Holland America Line

Simulated voyages with volunteers would include typical activities on cruise ships such as dining in onboard restaurants; a rendering of Holland America Line's new Club Orange restaurant on the new Rotterdam is shown above.

The cruise line also will have to demonstrate a simulated transfer of sick passengers from their staterooms/suites to isolation rooms and how to quarantine others.  

Marketing materials from the line must notify potential passengers of any CDC travel warnings and advisories, plus the potential for a voyage to be ended early if a specific threshold of the virus is detected on a ship during the voyage itself. If that happens, the ship would return to the port of embarkation so passengers would also have to be advised in advance that their return home could be and delayed or restricted. Upcoming voyages on that ship would be cancelled too. 

The CDC said the line with such an outbreak must isolate sick or infected passengers and crew in single occupancy cabins and quarantine other passengers and non-essential crew members. The agency will also prevent cruise lines from using public transportation to transport those sick or close-contact people ashore; private transport will be required, with operators duly informed of the health situation.

A Lifeline for Advisors

Still, the CDC’s decision to not extend the “No Sail Order” has bolstered the trade’s perspective and is already encouraging pent-up demand for cruising. 

“This is an absolute lifeline for the 8,000-plus travel advisors and 220 agencies within our network,” said Alex Sharpe, president of Signature Travel Network. He expressed confidence that the cruise line can execute on the panel’s protocols and looks forward to “a full return of cruising in the future and many, many happy guests.”

With 50 percent of her agency’s business in premium and luxury cruise bookings, Sheila Jones Folk, owner at Beyond Travel, an independent agency in the Nexion group, Apopka, FL, said: “Our clients have been ready to get back on the high seas for months,” and she expects to see a surge in confidence for clients to proceed with plans they previously put on hold.

In fact, she awakened Saturday (the morning after the CDC’s order was announced) to 10 or so emails from clients asking her how soon they can get on a ship. “While we all know the cruise lines won’t be sailing at full capacity, this is certainly a step in the right direct to restore some stability to our industry,” Folk acknowledged.

Image of Cruise Ships Docked in Port of San Diego Due to Coronavirus

Michelle Fee, CEO and founder, Cruise Planners, said her group had remained hopeful that that CDC would provide a green light for the resumption of sailings (such as the ones shown in the photo above at the Port of San Diego), and now, “it’s reassuring to learn we have a clear sense of direction on a phased-in approach and guidelines for a safe resumption of cruising." 

She also likes the CDC emphasis placed on preserving human life and the safety of crew, port personnel and destination communities. Fee also applauded the travel industry as a whole for adapting this year to changing circumstances while prioritizing travelers' safety.

“This has been working well across all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and in Mexico and cruises sailing in Europe,” Fee stressed, noting that she’s confident in the cruise lines’ abilities to implement necessary health and safety protocols. “It will be a happy day when cruisers can return to the seas and travel advisors can help their clients plan their cruise vacations."

Describing the CDC decision “a much needed shot in the arm” for the industry, Jackie Friedman, president, Nexion, expressed confidence that the cruise lines will take all necessary precautions so that cruising can resume as safely as possible.  

“The return to cruising will be slow and steady and the experience may be different for awhile but cruisers want to cruise,” Friedman emphasized, noting that from her own perspective: “I can’t wait to get back on a ship.”

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