CDC lifts ‘no-sail’ order, issues ‘Framework for Conditional Sailing’

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As the U.S. surpassed 220,000 COVID-19 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance about wearing masks while traveling.

USA TODAY

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will allow cruise ships to sail in U.S. waters starting Sunday. But even if they do, passengers won’t be waving goodbye from the deck. In fact, the agency hasn’t said when they’ll be allowed back on board.

That’s according to the public health agency’s new “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.” Published Friday, it “introduces a phased approach for the safe and responsible resumption for passenger cruises,” the CDC said in a release provided by spokesperson Cate Shockey.

The first cruises to leave port will be simulation sailings designed to show that ships and crews are in compliance with CDC standards and able to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 onboard.

“During the initial phases, cruise ship operators must demonstrate adherence to testing, quarantine and isolation, and social distancing requirements to protect crew members while they build the laboratory capacity needed to test crew and future passengers,” the agency explained.

Cruise ships line up along Port Miami on March 15 in Miami, Fla. (Photo: Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

Subsequent phases will include mock voyages with volunteers such as employees or their family members, Shockey told USA TODAY. Those test voyages will be akin to the shakedown cruises that lines do with any new vessel prior to its official maiden voyage. 

At the end of September, the CDC announced it would extend its “no-sail” order for the U.S. cruise industry through the end of October set to expire Saturday. 

The CDC’s previous order had been scheduled to end Wednesday after extensions to the original mid-March order were issued in April and again in July.

The CDC had requested that the order be extended to Feb. 15, 2021. However,  after a compromise with the White House Task Force, it settled for Oct. 31, four days before the Nov. 3 election, a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY at the time. As a result, a congressional subcommittee is investigating possible White House interference with the CDC’s order.

The CDC still advises against cruising

After announcing the “no sail” order’s Oct. 31 expiration date, the CDC issued a “Level 3 Travel Health Notice” recommending people “defer travel” on cruise ships worldwide. The Oct. 8 statement applies to both ocean and river cruising, which has already restarted in Asia and Europe.

For those who decide to sail after all, the agency recommended that passengers returning from a cruise ship or river cruise voyage “take extra precautions to protect others for 14 days after arrival.”

The health notice also warned people embarking on international cruises or making port calls in other countries that their travel could be impacted should anyone on their ship develop COVID-19. This includes being denied disembarkation, as happened to Holland America’s MS Westerdam, or ordered into official quarantine onboard, as Japan did with Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess in February. The outbreak on that ship infected more than 700 people and killed more than a dozen.

In addition, it reminded elderly travelers and those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes that they are at heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

Cruise industry preparing to sail

The cruise industry has spent much of its eight-month timeout figuring out how to operate safely once it’s allowed to resume sailing in  U.S. waters.

Earlier this month, the member lines ofCruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading organization, adopted 74 recommendations for preventing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on their passenger ships, including testing, face coverings and temperature checks. 

The new health and safety measures were drawn from a September report prepared for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the Healthy Sail Panel, a collaboration between industry heavyweights Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

The industry also instituted universal COVID-19 testing on ships with capacity to hold 250 or more people. 

Most remaining 2020 cruises canceled

Some cruise lines have already canceled sailings in November and December, leaving few of their remaining 2020 sailings on the schedule.

Earlier this month, Carnival Cruise Line canceled some sailings scheduled for the last two months of the year, including November cruises from its U.S. home ports in Miami and Port Canaveral. Carnival Subsidiary Princess Cruises announced back in July that it would extend its temporary U.S. shutdown through Dec. 15.

Virgin Voyages, whose maiden season was upended by the pandemic, is also canceling its December sailings, spokesperson Michelle Estevam confirmed to USA TODAY earlier this week. 

Cruises and the pandemic

Cruising was one of the first casualties of coronavirus, especially among lines that operate in Asia, where the pandemic first took root. 

A CDC report revealed that from March 1 to July 10,  2,973 cases of COVID-19 or “COVID-like” illnesses emerged on cruise ships, and there were 34 deaths. During that period, there were 99 outbreaks on 123 cruise ships, meaning that 80% of U.S. jurisdiction ships were affected.

But eight months have passed since those early outbreaks and cruise industry executives say things have evolved. Like the medical community and the world at large, they know more about the virus than they did back in March. And that knowledge has shaped their plans for returning to sea. 

“(We have done) tremendous learning about the virus over these months,” Adam Goldstein, global chair of CLIA, said at a virtual news conference in September.

Cruise line executives are echoing his statement.

“At this time we have every reason to be optimistic that we will be sailing in the U.S. before year end,” Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said on an earnings call earlier this month.

And Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group also believes that the industry has found a way to move forward.

“We do believe it is possible to make it that you are safer on a cruise ship than you are on ‘Main Street’,” he said on an earnings call Thursday.

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