CLIA Not Happy with New CDC Voluntary Program for Cruise Lines

Health and safety protocols now in place upon cruise ships have been highly effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 on ships. That's a fact. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says those protocols, coupled with pre-cruise testing and vaccine requirements have resulted in “dramatic drop in the number of COVID-positive cases, with hospitalizations being extraordinarily rare—in fact 80 times lower than on land in the U.S."

So, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced details of its new voluntary program for cruise lines on February 8, CLIA was disappointed as the rules were more restrictive than anticipated and hold the cruise industry to a higher standard than other segments of U.S. society. The voluntary program replaces replaces the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), a mandatory program that expired in mid-January. Cruise lines must let the CDC know by February 18 if they plan to participate in the program.

Restrictive, Confusing Rules

Here's what the CLIA statement said: “Regrettably, upon initial review, the latest CDC guidance appears out of step with the actual public health conditions on cruise ships and unnecessary in light of societal trends away from more restrictive measures." 

It continued: “We are confounded by the CDC’s imposition of even more complex and unwarranted measures which ignore empirical evidence that the industry’s protocols have provided a greater level of COVID mitigation than most any other setting.”

For example, the CDC’s new voluntary program has tiers where particular cruises would be treated in a certain way for requirements, others in a different way. To that CLIA said, “The CDC’s guidance for multi-tiered cruises is counterproductive to consumers, creating market confusion between the various tiers, and potentially unworkable in practice.”

CLIA stressed that “the protocols already adopted by every CLIA cruise-line member remain unequaled by other industries. Cruise lines are a model for adopting and employing highly effective, layered mitigation measures and have proven their effectiveness in a way that is unmatched by virtually any other commercial setting.” For instance, CLIA noted that “unlike any other travel, tourism, hospitality, or entertainment sector, cruise ships test all persons boarding, have medical, isolation and quarantine facilities on site, implement extensive response plans using only private shore-side resources, and have created an environment where almost every single person is fully vaccinated.”

The statement continued: "As compared to all the other sectors which, ironically, are much larger, cater to magnitudes more patrons, and operate many more conveyances and facilities without testing and at only a fraction of the cruise industry’s vaccination rates, cruising has emerged as the safest venue for mitigating COVID-19.”

Dismay at CDC's Travel Health Notice

Stressing that CLIA and its members are fervently devoted to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting passengers, crew, and the public against any adverse health consequences, the trade group said the “the record of this unwavering commitment is extensive and irrefutable.”

The statement continued: “Against this backdrop, we continue to be dismayed by the CDC’s decision to maintain any Travel Health Notice for cruise. CDC has long recognized the paramount importance of vaccination in protecting against COVID-19.”

CLIA emphasized that “the vaccination rate on cruise ships is close to 100 percent percent, whereas on land it is only about 63 percent. It seems unnecessarily discriminatory against cruise to maintain that the chances of getting COVID-19 on a cruise is very high' even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines."

In other words, CLIA said: "This discounts the importance of what the CDC has otherwise promoted as the single most important touchstone for public health and safety.”

The trade group also said that the cruise industry remains one of the most highly regulated sectors even after the expiration of the Conditional Sailing Order. It stressed that "CLIA cruise line members will continue to comply with all applicable regulations, and are committed to continue working with the CDC in mutual, cooperative partnership as part of our shared commitment to putting health and safety first."

But, "part and parcel of that goal is seeing signals from CDC that it recognizes the lengths the entire cruise industry has gone to and the success it has achieved in guarding against COVID-19,” the statement concluded.

Color Coding System

Until the February 18 deadline for cruise lines to let the CDC know they plan to participate or not in the program, all cruise ships in U.S. waters will continue to be assigned a red, orange, yellow or green color status.

That indicates the status of COVID cases aboard each ship. This information is viewable to consumers on the CDC's Web site.

In that color coding system, green indicates no reported COVID-19 cases or illness. Yellow means that the number of reported cases are below the threshold for CDC investigation. Orange is reserved for ships with reported cases of COVID-19 that have met the threshold for CDC investigation. Red means the cases are at or above the threshold for CDC investigation and further measures are in place.

The CDC did make one change to that color coding system from its previous approach in which orange was strangely ranked "better" than yellow. That caused consumer confusion. So, for the new program, the levels will be "green, yellow, then orange and red."

In addition, if by February 18 cruise lines have informed the CDC that they're choosing not to participate in the CDC's voluntary program, then starting on February 22, then their vessels will be listed as grey. That means that the CDC has not reviewed or confirmed the ship's health and safety protocols. 

Additionally, the CDC said that cruise ships’ vaccination status classification will reflect their vaccination status classification in effect prior to January 15, 2022, unless they inform CDC of a different status.

At this time, it's not known how many lines will opt into the CDC program. Without seeing the actual requirements of that program, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) previously said it would participate. Travel Agent has reached out to NCLH to re-confirm that it still will do so. 

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