CDC lifts no-sail order for cruise ships. But there’s a catch

a large ship in the water

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It’s official: Cruise ships can start sailing again out of U.S. ports.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said it would not extend its “no-sail” order for cruise ships that operate in U.S. waters beyond the end of this month.

The order is scheduled to expire at midnight on Saturday.

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Still, cruise lines won’t be able to restart cruising out of U.S. ports immediately. Indeed, it’s still unclear just how soon the restart really can begin.

In place of the no-sail order, the CDC on Friday issued a new “framework for conditional sailing” order that creates “a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.”

The 40-page order, which was posted on the CDC website, suggested that the CDC would first want to see that cruise lines had a plan in place for keeping their ship crews healthy and safe.

“CDC will ensure cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for crew members while these cruise ship operators build the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers,” the agency said in the order.

Related: Rising COVID cases threatens budding restart of Europe cruising

a small boat in a large body of water: Royal Caribbean is among the lines that have canceled all sailings for November. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

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Royal Caribbean is among the lines that have canceled all sailings for November. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

After that, the agency will require lines to conduct “simulated voyages” to test the ability of cruise lines to mitigate COVID risk on ships.

In a third phase of the CDC’s framework for a comeback of cruising, the agency will require certification for ships that meet specific requirements.

Only after that will lines be allowed to begin sailings with passengers.

Related: Has MSC Cruises cracked the code to a safe return of cruising?

The CDC in the order said the return of passenger ships would be allowed in a gradual way to mitigate COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members and the U.S. communities that cruise ships visit, and it suggested nothing was written in stone.

“These phases are subject to change based on public health considerations and cruise ship operators’ demonstrated ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk,” the order said.

The CDC didn’t give an expected timetable for how long it would take lines to complete the various phases of the framework or when the first sailings with passengers might take place. But it’s clear that the expiration of the agency’s no-sail order does not mean cruise ships necessarily can sail in November or even December.

All major cruise lines that operate out of U.S. ports already have canceled sailings for November. Some lines already have canceled sailings well into December or even January.

There currently are no cruise ships sailing in North America, even in areas that have not been subject to the CDC no-sail order.

Only one small cruise operator, SeaDream Yacht Club, has announced plans to resume sailings in North America in November. The line’s 112-passenger SeaDream I is scheduled to start a series of 22 voyages out of Barbados to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada, on Nov. 7.

The itinerary that SeaDream plans is not subject to CDC regulation because it does involve travel in U.S. waters.

The order suggested that some cruise lines may be allowed to return to cruising more quickly than others, depending on how quickly they satisfy CDC requirements.

“This framework allows for individual cruise lines to progress through phases at variable paces,” the order said. “This enables cruise lines successfully implementing public health measures to return to passenger operations more quickly while others by necessity may move more slowly.”

The CDC order included many pages of requirements that cruise lines will have to meet before they can be awarded a Conditional Sailing Certificate.

The order also suggested that the epidemiologists at the CDC continue to see cruise ships as places that are inherently more likely to be hotspots for COVID-19 transmission than other settings.

“Current scientific evidence suggests that, absent mitigation measures of the type needed to prevent further transmission, cruise ships would continue to pose a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than other settings,” the order said.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature image by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

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