CDC Issues Final Guidance to Restart U.S. Cruises

CDC guidance for restarting U.S. cruises
CDC provided the final gidance to restart cruises from U.S. ports (PortMiami photo prior to pandemic)

Published May 5, 2021 10:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

As part of the general effort to re-open America and provide updated guidance reflecting the evolution of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued its final two stages of guidance on the steps required to restart cruises from U.S. ports. In a long and detailed process, the CDC mapped out stricter restrictions than are being placed on onshore businesses, but it provided a clear path for cruises to resume from U.S. ports as early as July 2021.

One set of instructions specifically deals with the operation of simulated voyages, which are designed to test the cruise lines' prepared plans and protocols for everything from check-in and embarkation procedures to revised onboard operations, disembarkation and follow up medical testing and monitoring for symptoms of the virus. The cruise lines must submit plans at least 30 days in advance of the planned sailing for those simulated voyages; they must carry at least 10 percent of the restricted passenger capacity of the ship; and they must limit the passengers to volunteers who understand that they are testing unproven processes. All the passengers need to be age 18 or older, agree to pre- and post-cruise testing, tracing, and report any symptoms or exposure to the virus.

“Cruise ship operators now have all the necessary requirements and recommendations they need to start simulated voyages before resuming restricted passenger voyages,” the CDC said in announcing the release of the technical instructions. “In the final phase of the CSO (Conditional Sailing Order issued in October 2020), cruise ship operators with an approved COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate application will be permitted to sail with passengers following the requirements of the CSO. CDC does not anticipate releasing any additional documents."

The CDC is permitting cruise lines to skip the simulated voyages if they attest to having 98 percent of their crew fully vaccinated and limit passengers to 95 percent being verified as fully vaccinated. The ship must still prepare the same plans and protocols to be reviewed by the CDC before they are permitted to begin sailing.

Both passengers and crew will also find a very different onboard experience with strong limitations versus the pre-pandemic cruise operations. The CDC provides a long list of rules impacting nearly every aspect of the cruise and retains the right to conduct inspections of the cruise ship without prior notice.

The CDC is requiring social distancing practices aboard the ships ranging from rearranging or blocking seating or limiting capacity in venues or operating by reservation only. All around the ship passenger flow should be managed and restricted, including even possibly using separate up and down staircases, limiting elevator capacity, and congregation points to limit crowds. From the outdoor pool area to entertainment venues, and service areas such as gyms and the spa, passengers need to remain distanced. All public spaces on the ship, including the outdoor pool and water park areas, also require the use of face coverings along with instructions for the passengers on hygiene and practices limiting the spread of the virus.

Food service also faces restrictions starting with the mandatory elimination of all self-service food and beverage locations. Seating must also be spaced and limited, masks only removed for limited periods, and where possible reduce or eliminate passenger-crew interaction. The CDC also recommends alternative meal service options such as prepackaged grab-and-go-meal for consumption on deck or in individual cabins, as well as encouraging outdoor dining or in-room passenger meal service, or possibly order ahead to limit time spent in restaurants. 

Shore operations are also limited with passengers being restricted to excursions operated by the cruise line and no independent or self-guided touring. There should be no interaction of passengers between cruise ships on shore, limiting one cruise ship at a time to the cruise line’s private destinations and the use of face masks and social distancing on the private islands.

The rules also repeat many of the requirements for alternations to the ships such as increasing outdoor airflow in HVAC systems and filters. They instruct the cruise lines were practical to open doors and windows to increase the fresh air flow as well. Medical facilities also need to be enhanced and protocols practiced for the isolation of passengers and crew showing symptoms of the virus.

Even with its litany of restrictions, the announcement of the next phases for resuming cruises warns, “CDC acknowledges that it is not possible for cruising to be a zero-risk activity for the spread of COVID-19. While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC is committed to ensuring that cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers, and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern.”

The steps released today are also in addition to the prior restrictions the CDC announced that - among other elements - limit cruises to seven days or less and restrict crew movement between ships. They advise that they will continue to update the guidance and recommendations based on the best scientific evidence available.

While the cruise industry welcomed the long-awaited details from the CDC required to restart operations, no statements were issued immediately as the industry reviewed the extensive details provided in today’s releases from the CDC.