The director of the maritime division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said passengers could be boarding cruise ships in U.S. ports as soon as July.
It all depends on how many people get vaccinated, how well COVID-19 variants can be kept at bay, and how fast cruise companies can secure agreements with local ports and health authorities in the cities they plan to visit, said CDC’s Martin Cetron in an interview.
Passengers have not boarded cruise ships in the U.S. since mid-March 2020, when the industry shut down following COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple ships. In recent weeks the cruise industry has dialed up its pressure on the CDC to allow for cruises to resume, citing July as a target. Cetron doesn’t think cruise companies are that far off, but it’s going to take some work to get there, and a lot of things have to go right, he said.
There’s a lot to be hopeful about. More than one-third of U.S. adults has received the COVID-19 vaccine, which so far appears to be effective against more deadly COVID-19 variants.
But Cetron cautions that the U.S. is still at the beginning of a vaccine supply and distribution race against known variants and those still being defined.
“The caveat is if I’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s that it’s hard to predict three weeks in advance — much less three months,” he said. “In an ideal setting where we don’t have an overwhelming fourth wave of variants that are unresponsive to our mitigation strategies, that if all things go well as planned...I think with following the guidance we laid out we can all probably get to a place of partial resumption of sailing in July.”
Under the CDC’s “conditional sail order,” cruise company executives must now pen agreements with the highest ranking officials of the ports and health authorities where they plan to visit. Those agreements should include routine processes — such as cruise terminal cleaning procedures — and worst-case scenario evacuation and hospitalization plans. Those agreements must then be submitted to the CDC for its approval before simulated cruises can begin, and then eventually the real thing.
But cruise companies would rather skip right to the cruising. In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said the company’s new vaccination requirement for all passengers and crew, combined with enhanced protocols like tests before boarding and bigger medical teams on board, are sufficient given the CDC’s new guidance that vaccinated people can resume air travel.
Still the CDC’s Level 4 warning against cruise travel — the agency’s highest — remains in place.
“[Air travel] is a shorter journey compared to spending a week day and night in a hospitality based industry in which the air handling environment isn’t exactly the same,” said Cetron. “It’s meals multiple times a day together, buffets, rooms, mixed crowds between the crew and the passengers, and the types of sleeping arrangements for the crew is very different than it is for passengers. So it’s a different setting, and of course this pandemic has taught us the risk of certain settings is different than others. Each of them has to be considered in the context of those environments.”