CDC Extends Cruise Rules to January 2022

CDC extends cruise rules to January 2022
Cruise ships in PortMiami prior to the pandemic (file photo)

Published Oct 26, 2021 3:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

Days before the controversial rules governing the operation of cruise  ships from U.S. ports were due to expire, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that due to the continuing spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 it plans to extend the protocols for an additional two and a half months. The CDC, however, said that in 2022 it plans to transition to a voluntary program being developed in conjunction with the cruise lines and other authorities.

First released in October 2020, the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) and later modified with a framework to resuming cruises, established a series of steps including reaching agreements with ports, vaccination, testing and monitoring requirements, test cruises, and finally the resumption of trips. Criticized for being overly complicated and in places unrealistic, the cruise lines however met the CDC requirements and resumed sailing from U.S. ports in the summer of 2021. 

The CSO also became the subject of a lawsuit by the state of Florida which said the CDC was causing harm by blocking cruises. While Florida was successful in getting a temporary injunction that made the CDC’s restrictions into recommendations, the cruise lines largely continued to voluntarily follow the requirements. Florida, however, blocked vaccine requirements for passengers, forcing cruise lines to find creative processes to follow the CDC’s requirements, or in some cases, cruise lines implemented differing rules for ships sailing from Florida and other U.S. ports.

The latest iteration of the CDC’s processes goes into effect on November 1 when the current order was due to expire. The CDC says it will remain in place until the pandemic is officially declared over or till January 15, 2022, at which time the industry will be governed by a voluntary program. Both efforts the CDC said are to ensure the safety of passengers, crew, and port communities while also noting that it believes cruising will always pose some risk of disease spread.

The extension of the requirements added two new important provisions for the cruise industry. Cruise ships that have been sailing from U.S. ports for more than 60 days requiring 95 percent of passengers and crew to be vaccinated now have the option to transition to broader operations without running simulated cruises. The cruise lines have to establish new policies for the use of masks and physical distancing as well as train the crew for the new policies before they begin accepting a greater percentage of unvaccinated passengers.

The other important change to the order addresses cruise ships that were sailing internationally and are now repositioning into U.S. ports. Ships operating for more than 60 days are permitted to return to the U.S. market without conducting simulated voyages by establishing similar protocols for masking and virus mitigation and crew training.

Other changes to the CSO include removing the restriction on length of cruises and the requirements to advise passengres of the risks and CDC restriction while marketing cruises. Earlier versions of the CSO limited cruising to less than seven days.

“The changes to the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, announced today, show that the Biden Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize the cruise industry’s successful resumption of operations,” the industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association said in a written statement. “We look forward to demonstrating the industry’s continued leadership in this final phase of the CSO, and to carrying out a smooth transition when the order comes to an end on January 15, 2022.”