CDC Updates Guidance as Judge Hears Arguments in Florida’s Case

CDC updates cruise ship restrictions
Masking restrictions are one of the issues with the CDC requirements (Dream Cruises)

Published May 12, 2021 7:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

After being broadly criticized by the cruise industry for the level of restrictions that it plans to impose on cruise ships as they resumed sailing for U.S. ports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on a few points. This came as a federal judge was hearing the pending lawsuit and application for an injunction, which if granted, could revoke the CDC’s orders and permit the cruise lines to resume sailing from U.S. ports.

“These instructions reflect CDC’s reasoned judgment based on the best available current science regarding the subject areas covered,” the CDC writes in its summary presentation. “Cruise ship operators should carefully consider and incorporate these instructions in developing their own health and safety protocols.” 

The CDC issued two documents last week that it said would be the last elements for its requirements to the cruise ships seeking to resume sailing from the U.S. ports. One covered the second stage of preparing plans and required agreements and protocols before resuming operations, as well as the requirement to operate simulated voyages and submit results to the CDC. Cruise lines, however, that agreed to require vaccinations for crew and passengers will be permitted to skip the simulated voyages after their plans are approved by the CDC.

The second portion was an extensive manual with what many called highly restrictive policies going beyond those being imposed on other elements of the leisure and hospitality industry including hotels, airplanes, and food establishments. The trade group Cruise Lines International Association responded saying it was clear that there was extensive work to still be done while Frank Del Rio, CEO and President of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said after his read of the document that elements seemed “just preposterous,” and that he hoped with vaccinations that, “there won’t be a need for such impractical onerous burdensome requirements.”

Del Rio said that he would give the CDC the opportunity to “expand and clarify,” saying that as a company and an industry they needed more clarity. One area that was specifically cited was if the requirements applied to voyages with vaccinated passengers and crew.

The update from the CDC specifically incorporates a few adjustments for fully vaccinated situations. “Cruise ship operators, at their discretion, may advise passengers and crew, if they are fully vaccinated,” the CDC now writes that they may gather or conduct activities outdoors, including meals and beverages, “without wearing a mask except in crowded settings.” Indoor meal service, however, still requires passengers to put masks on between consuming food and beverages.

Shore excursion restrictions were also updated for fully vaccinated passengers. The CDC now says at the cruise line’s discretion fully vaccinated passengers can engage in self-guided or independent exploration “if they wear a mask indoors.”

The other restrictions, including social distancing and face coverings during the cruise, remain in place as well as recommendations such as considering the use of wearable recording technology (proximity bands) to use if contract tracing is necessary.

While the CDC was providing its adjustments to the requirements, a federal judge in Tampa heard arguments in the lawsuit brought by Florida and joined by Alaska and Texas that says the CDC has overstepped its bounds in preventing cruise ships from operating. Saying that the states have been harmed by the CDC’s actions, the lawyers for the states asked the judge to rule on an injunction that would immediately suspend the Conditional Sailing Order and Framework that governs the resumption of cruises. 

Lawyers for the CDC and Biden administration argued that the health authorities are acting “lawfully and reasonably” fulfilling their role to protect public health. The CDC also said that it has provided the framework, and now it is up to the cruise lines to meet the guidelines and then they can resume sailing.

The judge is promising to rule as quickly as possible in the case. Regardless of the speed of the ruling, the cruise industry has said the time required to re-start the ships that are in cold layup puts July cruises in jeopardy. Carnival Cruise Line said yesterday that it is still working to possibly restart three ships from Florida and Texas in July while extended other cancellations. Princes Cruises followed suit today canceling cruises into August.