It's been a while, but the long-awaited next steps in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Conditional Sailing Order have finally been released, roughly four months since the agency’s last update in December 2020.
In a nutshell, the new technical guidelines require cruise lines to amp up the testing frequency of crew and passengers, incorporate mandatory vaccines for crew and port personnel, and work out COVID-19 contingency plans between ships and any ports they’ll visit during their sailings. They’ll also have to prove they have space and healthcare capabilities to isolate and quarantine any positive cases they find onboard.
The new guidelines rely heavily on an updated color-coded tier system—green, yellow, orange, and red—which functions a lot like the color-coding many cities used to determine lockdown status. The color status will be determined by the availability of onboard testing, routine testing protocols, and, of course, positive case numbers—now to be reported daily instead of weekly. On the upswing, under the new guidelines, the CDC has cut the minimum amount of time a ship can run the full gamut from red to green in half, from 28 to 14 days. The color status of a ship will also affect the frequency of onboard testing.
However, this new guidance has arrived at a snail’s pace, and many cruise lines believe the order’s timeline (or even the order itself) is outdated. After all, a lot can change in four months, especially in the thick of a pandemic.
Since the CDC’s initial enactment of the Conditional Sailing Order back in October 2020, and even its initial—and, until last week, only—guidance released in December, the pandemic landscape has indeed changed. For starters, sailings have safely resumed in other parts of the world, new sailings embarking from the Caribbean this summer, and, most notably, vaccines have arrived on the scene and are being administered in several countries around the world.
On Wednesday, March 24, 2021, just over a week before the CDC announced their new phase guidelines, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) asked the agency, in light of all the new advancements in cruising and vaccines, to consider lifting the order earlier than its original November 2022 date, one more on-par with the July 4 timeline the White House has set as a return to some normalcy. The CDC said no.
Now, days after the CDC finally released the next steps in their long-term phased plan, another cruise line has reportedly point blank just asked the agency to move the deadline. Norwegian Cruise Line’s argument must have sounded familiar, highlighting beliefs that the cruise industry was unfairly being held to stricter reopening protocols and procedures than other tourism and travel sectors, like hotels, airlines, and theme parks.
However, unlike CLIA’s plea, Norwegian Cruise Line offered up their own guidelines for safe sailing, reportedly crafted with input from the Health Sail Panel (HSP), a panel consisting of cruise industry leaders and health and medical experts that was formed last summer by Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International.
The proposed protocol includes testing all crew and passengers, starting sailings at 60 percent capacity before gradually ramping up capacity by 20 percent every 30 days and a slew of onboard cleaning and hygiene practices. Norwegian also said they would require all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated for all sailings through October 2021—which would mean that any passengers under the age of 16 or those unable to receive the vaccine would not be allowed on board (yet).
"By requiring full and complete vaccinations of guests and crew, the Company believes it shares in the spirit and exceeds the intent of the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) to advance mutual public health goals and protect guests, crew and the communities it visits," Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) CEO Frank Del Rio reportedly wrote in the letter to the CDC.
"Norwegian trusts and is optimistic the CDC will agree that mandatory vaccination requirements eliminate the need for the [CSO] and therefore requests for the lifting of the order for Norwegian's vessels, allowing them to cruise from U.S. ports starting July 4."
The CDC has yet to respond. Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings includes Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas, and Oceania Cruises.