The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday announced that it will lift its no-sail order on cruises, which banned large cruise ships from operating in U.S. waters since March. Effective Nov. 1., the ban will be replaced with a “conditional sailing order,” a phased return to cruising that includes new health protocols, such as mandatory testing and capacity restrictions. But that does not include passengers just yet.
The CDC says the initial phases are for crew only, which is “to ensure adequate safety and health protocols through a series of mock voyages with volunteers who will play the role of passengers,” said Martin Cetron, the CDC director for the division of global migration and quarantine. The CDC does not have a timeline for a return for passengers, Cetron said.
“Considering the continued spread of covid-19 worldwide and increased risk of covid-19 on cruise ships, a careful approach is needed to safely resume cruise ship passenger operations,” the CDC order says. “After expiration of CDC’s No Sail Order (NSO) on October 31, 2020, CDC will take a phased approach to resuming cruise ship passenger operations in U.S. waters.”
The change comes after coronavirus cases in the United States hit a new daily high on Thursday, with 89,000 new infections reported.
The new framework draws upon health guidance submitted to the CDC in September by the Healthy Sail Panel, a team of cruise and public-health experts that cruise giants Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line assembled this July. The panel outlined 74 recommendations for a potential safe return to cruising, including a new focus on “air management,” lower ship capacities, shorter sailings, required testing and masks, and enhanced cleanings and medical staff on voyages.
The report outlines four phases of a CDC-certified return to cruising, beginning with cruise ships establishing coronavirus testing of all crew. Phase 2 will allow ships to begin “simulated voyages designed to test a cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate covid-19 on cruise ships.
Phase 3 requires certification by the CDC. The final phase is a “return to passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates the risk of covid-19 introduction, transmission, or spread among passengers and crew onboard ships and communities.”
Cetron said CDC protocols for the phases are “beefed up” from the Healthy Sail Panel’s suggested guidance, which he said had “areas where we thought they weren’t quite strong enough.” Those areas include protections for ship crew, vigorous response plans to onboard cases and post-sail testing protocols. He called the new phased protocols “a real turning point.”
The CDC noted in its announcement that the conditions of the phased order may be rescinded or modified based on public health consideration, or if the secretary of health and human services declares an end to the covid-19 public health emergency. Otherwise, its expiration date is Nov. 1, 2021.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, cruise ships outside the United States continued sailing into late March. Sixty-five passengers or staff died of covid-19 on Carnival Corp.-operated ships around the world during that time, according to reporting by The Washington Post. Carnival’s Diamond Princess and Grand Princess ships saw a combined 800 total coronavirus cases and 10 deaths in March and April, according to the CDC.
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The CDC implemented its no-sail order on March 14 and has maintained a Level 3 (Avoid Nonessential Travel) cruise warning, its highest level, recommending that travelers “defer all cruise travel worldwide.” Cruising resumed in Europe this August with new health standards and limited ship capacities in place.
Last week, the CDC changed its standards for who is a “close contact” of an infected individual with coronavirus, saying it now defines a close contact as someone who was within six feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. It also clarified earlier this month long-awaited guidance on airborne transmission, saying people can sometimes become infected with the virus through airborne transmission, especially in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.
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