ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has held the cruise industry to special sailing orders to battle COVID-19 since March 2020. First it was a no-sail order, which then shifted to a conditional sail order with a long list of safety precautions.
That order expired Saturday (Jan. 15), shifting to a voluntary practice, despite a surge in omicron variant cases that have all 92 ships sailing with passengers from the U.S. under CDC investigations because of COVID-19 cases.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in Senate hearing earlier this month indicated the CDC would not extend the order, saying “the industry has stepped up and is now interested in exceeding the compliance with the sail order.”
The CDC confirmed details of the voluntary program would be posted to its website when the conditional order expires, and the cruise lines that opt in must agree to adhere to its recommendations and guidance, with the CDC continuing to monitor onboard cases.
The CDC stated it expects cruise lines to quickly make their decision to participate.
“That’s good news and clearly shows the industry is policing itself very well, and that the protocols are working,” said Port Canaveral CEO John Murray at a port commission meeting this week. “The CDC is comfortable with that and the relationship with the cruise lines that they’re no longer going to have this mandatory order in place.”
The original no-sail order came in early 2020 after cruise lines had already voluntarily shut down operations amid the initial global expansion of COVID-19, which included several headline-grabbing outbreaks on board cruise ships.
Princess Cruises had the deadliest aboard its Diamond Princess ship, which ended up staying docked in Japan for months with all of its passengers and crew under quarantine. The outbreak proved fatal to 13 people on board.
The order shifted to a conditional sail order in October 2020, although cruise lines had to wait more than six months later for technical guidance from the CDC before they could work to fulfill the 80 rules to ensure the public’s safety.
Cruise lines including Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises had already dipped their toes in the international waters of restarting with their own COVID-19 health protocols in place, making successful forays in Europe and Asia, and that was without the vaccines, which began to roll out in the U.S. in December 2020.
By spring 2021, though, vaccines became central to the CDC’s conditional sail order parameters.
Cruise lines had two options to get approval to sail from the U.S. They could either commit to having 98% of crew and 95% of passengers be vaccinated, or they could perform a simulated sailing under the watch of CDC inspectors to prove each ship’s safety protocols.
Some cruise lines announced their intentions to require vaccinations from guests, including Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line.
Others such as Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line and MSC Cruises, opted for the test sailing approach, as many of their passengers were under the age of vaccine eligibility, and attaining 95% vaccinated on board would prove difficult.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fought cruise lines’ efforts to require vaccines while also taking on the CDC in federal court over the conditional sail order. The state won a temporary injunction against the CDC from enforcing the conditional sail order at least from Florida.
But another federal judge sided with NCL’s parent company and granted a temporary injunction against the state from enforcing a law against so-called vaccine passports that went into effect on July 1, 2021, that would fine companies $5,000 per instance if they required vaccines.
Both rulings have been appealed, but higher courts have yet to rule.
In the meantime, cruise lines continued to follow the CDC’s conditional sail order even from Florida, and when the government of the Bahamas began requiring vaccines for ships to even enter their waters, every cruise line shifted to require vaccines from all eligible passengers.
There were few COVID-19 cases until December when omicron began to spread in the normal population.
By Jan. 5, the CDC was investigating cases on board every ship eligible to sail, meaning that at least 0.1% of passengers, or a single crew member, had a reported case of COVID-19. For a 4,000-passenger ship, that means at least four passenger cases had been detected.
The surge prompted some cancellations. Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean either pulled existing ships’ planned itineraries in January, or in some cases delayed their debuts. Those were only for select ships and in most cases just for a couple of weeks.
But most ships continue to sail.
“With omicron out there, and the transmissibility of it, it’s a very dynamic situation right now,” Murray said. “Some ports are not receiving vessels, so it’s changing itineraries, but the good news is nothing is shutting down like it did in March 2020.”