CDC Lowers COVID-19 Health Warning for Cruises
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the health warning level for cruises dropping its recommendation for all travelers to avoid cruises as part of its regular updates to its COVID-19 travel recommendations. The move recognizing the reduced number of cases on cruises comes as the CDC continues to have 137 countries listed as Level 4 Very High Risk, including updates for countries including French Polynesia and South Korea on February 14.
“The decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lower the Travel Health Notice threat level for cruise ships is a step in the right direction,” responded the industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association highlighting the effectiveness of the cruise sector’s health and safety protocols. CLIA highlights that with ships mostly requiring their crew to be fully vaccinated and many also having vaccination requirements for eligible passengers, that cases of COVID-19 are very low with the vast majority mild or asymptomatic.
With the surges of Omicron cases across the United States, the CDC on December 30 raised the cruise industry to Level 4 advising all travelers to avoid cruise ships, saying, “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters onboard ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is high, even if you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines.” At the time, CDC data was showing that all cruise ships sailing with passengers from U.S. ports had reported cases of the virus in the past week.
Updated data from the CDC as part of its color-coding system for the cruise ships now shows a similar decline in cases on board as to what is being experienced in parts of the United States. There are currently 112 cruise ships reporting to the CDC and of those ships, 31 including 16 ships that only have crew and have not returned to service, are green with no reported cases. An additional 40 ships have reported cases but are below the CDC’s threshold for investigation while 41 have had cases and are above the investigation threshold.
The CDC, however, continues to urge all travelers to be fully vaccinated before going on a cruise and use masks in indoor spaces. They are also recommending that passengers be tested after returning home to ensure they are not positive for the virus before resuming normal daily activities.
The health protocols for the cruise ships and the CDC’s voluntary program are due to evolve again as of the end of this week. Cruise ships have till February 18 to inform the CDC is they will be participating in the programs. As of February 22, the CDC will begin officially flagging cruise ships that are not participating and reporting data on cases although the chart with the color-coding already indicates which cruise ships have not informed the CDC of their decision. As of February 15, only 20 cruise ships have opted in to the new reporting program.
The cruise industry continues its efforts of self-policing and managing operations. At the peak of the Omicron surge, cruises were being curtailed and canceled but that has subsided while the cruise lines have also become more proactive in managing itineraries to ensure that they will be permitted to dock in scheduled ports. Popular destinations such as the U.S. Virgin Islands have also been adjusting their policies to permit more cruise ships to reach ports such as St. Thomas. Onboard the cruise ships, lines including Carnival and Royal Caribbean are again permitting passengers to smoke in their casinos, after having suspending smoking to encourage wider use of masks. Norwegian Cruise Line announced next month that it would be eliminating its mask requirement while maintaining the requirement for passengers to be vaccinated.
Cruise executives have become increasingly optimistic. Royal Caribbean Group for example said it expects occupancy to rise and a move to 100 percent capacity by the summer months. Carnival Cruise Line announced at the beginning of the week its new deployment plan saying that it would be sailing from all 10 of its U.S. homeports by March and have all its cruises in service starting in May 2022.