The U.S. CDC released its long-awaited cruise guidance this week.
Prospects for the resumption of cruising in American waters have been rising ever since the CDC announced its advice that vaccinated persons may travel was to be extended to cruising, and that it anticipated cruising could resume in U.S. waters by mid-summer.
However, details on specific conditions have been scant.
We now have a clear – and final – picture. The CDC has issued Phases 2B and 3 of its Conditional Sail Order, and its statement, published in Cruise Week, advises the health organization “does not anticipate releasing any additional documents,” for the final, Phase 4.
Vaccinated Voyages vs Simulated Sailings
As Open Jaw reported, previous guidance provided two paths to a return to sailing.
One involves sailing with no less than 98 per cent of crew and 95 per cent of guests fully vaccinated.
The other path, for ships with less than the threshold of vaccinations, refers back to the original “test” or “simulated” voyages, where health and safety protocols will be evaluated before the ship is certified to sail.
The CDC has said it will reduce red tape in processing requests for “simulated” voyages, and has now issued technical guidance.
As CNN reports, “Simulated voyages must have at least 10% of the maximum number of passengers permitted on board a ship.” All pax must be 18 and older, and provide proof of vaccination. In addition, the volunteer passengers on the simulated cruises must be willing to get a COVID-19 test following the conclusion of the voyage.
“The CDC’s new guidance also includes operational procedures for cruise ship operators to prevent the spread of Covid-19, including onboard surveillance, laboratory testing, face mask use, social distancing, passenger interactions and procedures for embarking and disembarking,” the report adds.
A Brave New World of Cruising
Once cruises proceed beyond simulated sailings, or leapfrog that step with almost-fully vaccinated crew and guests, the CDC has clarified how the cruise experience is required to change under the final terms of the CSO.
As reported in Cruise Industry News, some of the regulations will differ from what travellers and the industry had been hoping for.
While many cruise lines have already put buffets on hold, the new CDC guidelines are, “requiring them to eliminate any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars, and drink stations.”
CDC also recommends cruise lines create and promote alternative dining options to reduce crowding in dining venues. They suggest pre-packaged grab-and-go meals guests can consume on decks or in staterooms.
And the organization recommends implementing and promoting room service, which will be quite problematic for some of the largest ships and lines.
Health officials say cruise lines need to create conditions for distancing that will make securing prime lido deck space even more challenging for most guests.
Loungers will be few and far between – literally – as the report says, “loungers and chairs will need to be six feet apart, severely limiting outdoor seating space,” although, “These items can be grouped together for families and traveling companions.”
‘Bubble’ Shore Excursions
This aspect of the Conditional Sail Order may be a real disappointment.
Unlike the resumption of sailing offshore in many other cases, when cruising begins again in the U.S., guests will not be able to visit ports independently.
Cruise lines must, “prohibit self-guided or independent exploration by passengers during port stops.”
Instead, only ‘bubble’ shore excursions will be permitted, and cruise lines must, “Ensure all shore excursion tour companies facilitate social distancing to allow for at least 6 feet (2 meters) between individuals who are not traveling companions or part of the same family, mask wearing, cleaning and disinfection, and other COVID-19 public health measures throughout the tour.”
This would require guests to purchase organized tours through the cruise line in advance of their voyage.
In addition, Cruise Week points out, “the CDC also said cruise lines should limit shore excursions in foreign ports of call” to countries the CDC lists as “Level 1” or low-risk, “which would take a number of Caribbean destinations out of itineraries.”
Restart in Jeopardy
At least one cruise executive has commented on the updated CSO guidance.
Thursday morning, as reported in Cruise Week, NCLH Chairman/CEO Frank Del Rio warned cruising might not be able to resume by mid-JUL after all.
“By requiring mandatory vaccinations for all guests and crew on initial voyages, in addition to comprehensive preventative protocols, the plan [to restart cruising from U.S. ports beginning July 4] exceeds the intent of the CDC’s CSO… As valuable time goes by, given the lead time needed to stand up a ship and the need for an acceptable and definitive agreement with the CDC, a potential mid-summer restart from U.S. ports could be in jeopardy.”