Cruise Industry, Activists Petition CDC Over its "No Sail Order"

CDC headquarters, Atlanta (file image courtesy Daniel Mayer / CC SA 3.0)

Published Sep 21, 2020 7:41 PM by The Maritime Executive

Cruise industry representatives and longtime cruise opponents have filed competing petitions with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control over the upcoming expiration of the agency's "no sail order," which prohibits large cruise ships from sailing due to the risk of spreading COVID-19. When passengers intermingle on board and return home, they may inadvertently carry coronavirus to communities across state and national boundaries, CDC has warned.

The CDC's no-sail order expires on September 30, unless the agency extends it. Monday was the last day of a public comment period on its implementation. 

On Monday, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings submitted a joint report to the CDC on their planned protocols for a safe return to service. The two operators formed a joint committee on coronavirus response measures in June, chaired by Governor Mike Leavitt, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Their report includes 74 recommendations, including testing, the use of face coverings and enhanced sanitation procedures on ships and in terminals. 

The plan could be costly to implement, but Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio told Reuters that the expense was not important. "We are at a zero revenue environment. This is a necessary step to return to service and we’re not really concerned about what the costs are," Del Rio said.

The report comes as a group of longstanding cruise industry critics appeals to the CDC to keep cruise ships at the pier. The environmental groups Stand.earth and Friends of the Earth US submitted petitions with more than 50,000 combined signatures on Monday, calling for CDC to extend its no-sail order a second time.

"As long as the cruise industry refuses to implement changes needed to protect its passengers, our environment, and local communities, the industry should not restart cruising,” asserted Marcie Keever, the oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth US.

The petition's health-related proposals include a requirement that all prospective passengers and crew should have COVID-19 antibodies. In the United States, this qualification exists only for people who have previously had COVID-19 or (for a very small number) are participating in a COVID-19 vaccine trial. The timeline for widespread availability of an approved vaccine - which would increase the number of individuals with antibodies dramatically - is not yet clear. 

The groups also cited the evidence that tough-to-control aerosol transmission played a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 in previous cruise ship outbreaks. Based on this risk, they called on the CDC to forego cruising altogether until the end of the pandemic.

The majority of the groups' demands are not COVID-related, but rather centered on certain cruise operators' environmental records and on reducing the environmental impact of cruising.