Cruising could restart in mid-summer in American waters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late Wednesday in a letter to the cruise industry that USA TODAY obtained.
“We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity and that the goal of the CSO’s phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities,” Aimee Treffiletti, head of the Maritime Unit for CDC’s COVID-19 response within its Global Mitigation Task Force for COVID-19, said in the letter.
In a statement about the letter, spokesperson Caitlin Shockey gave USA TODAY a more specific timeline. Cruises could begin passenger voyages from the United States in mid-July, depending on cruise lines’ pace and compliance with the CDC’s Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.
“CDC looks forward to continued engagement with the industry and urges cruise lines to submit Phase 2A port agreements as soon as possible to maintain the timeline of passenger voyages by mid-July,” Shockey said.
A source close to the situation but not authorized to speak on the record told USA TODAY that the industry is cautiously optimistic about moving ahead after receiving the CDC’s letter, after more than a year without sailing in U.S. waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter came on the heels of a month of twice-weekly meetings with cruise industry representatives. During those meetings, the industry and the health agency discussed the Conditional Sailing Order.
While the CDC outlined a potential restart date for cruises departing from U.S. ports this summer, that doesn’t mean that the restrictions on cruises are lifted. The CDC offered clarifications to its guidance based on industry feedback and still expects cruise lines to meet its requirements before sailing can resume.
Based on industry feedback, the CDC landed on five clarifications to its additional guidance issued April 2 to allow a resumption of sailing:
- Ships can bypass the required simulated test voyages carrying volunteers and jump to sailings with paying passengers if 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.
- CDC will review and respond to applications from cruise lines for simulated voyages within 5 days, a review previously expected to take 60 days.
- CDC will update its testing and quarantine requirements for passengers and crew on sailings with paying passengers to align with the CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated people. So, for example, instead of taking a PCR lab test ahead of boarding vaccinated passengers can take a rapid antigen test upon embarkation.
- CDC has clarified that cruise ship operators may enter into a “multi-port agreement” rather than a single port agreement as long as all port and local authorities sign the agreement.
- The CDC has clarified guidance on quarantine guidelines for passengers who may be exposed to or contract COVID-19. For example, local passengers may be able to drive home and passengers who have traveled by air to cruise may quarantine in a hotel.
USA TODAY has reached out to Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading trade group, for comment.
Whether to restart cruising in U.S. subject to pressure from all sides
Over the last month or so, the CDC has been subject to pressure from many sides on whether to restart or hold off.
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At the end of March, the cruise industry pushed for the CDC to lift its Conditional Sailing Order, calling the agency’s restrictions “outdated.” Other travel sector members voiced their support for a hastened return to sailing, too.
And politicians have played tug of war with the issue, too. Some legislators are pushing the CDC to allow cruises to restart while others are asking the agency to continue to hold off on allowing ships to sail due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
In a letter sent earlier this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., urged the CDC’s Walensky to maintain current restrictions on cruising.
Their letter came on the heels of a lawsuit brought by Florida against the CDC, which Alaska has joined, and new legislation proposed by Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska aiming to override the CDC’s restrictions on cruising and get ships sailing by July.
United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg also weighed in on the cruise industry’s slow restart at a White House press briefing on April 9, stating he knows the CDC is “hopeful” for cruise lines to be in a position to sail by midsummer.
“Well, the bottom line is safety,” he said. “Airplanes have one safety profile; cruise ships have another, vehicles have another. And each one needs to be treated based on what’s safe for that sector.”
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