On February 9, just hours after both Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean announced that they were rolling masking requirements back to pre-Omicron level, the CDC announced their new "voluntary" COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships which replaced the Conditional Sailing Order that expired on January 15, 2022.
It raised a lot of eyebrows in the travel industry. Why did the CDC allow the original order to expire and then wait nearly a month to implement something new? Was this basically a rewording of the Conditional Sail Order? Like much of the "guidance" the industry has gotten from the CDC, the answer was, well, it was less than clear.
You'll notice a couple of words above with quotes. Growing up in things like team sports and marching band, we joked about "mandatory voluntary" practices and such. This was no different. Let's be clear - at the heart of this voluntary program was the ability of the CDC to make a cruise line look to be unsafe by marking them as gray on its status dashboard. By doing that, the public (and media) could look at cruise lines and ships as renegades that were trying to flaunt the rules and were not willing to comply to keep passengers and crew safe.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since working with the CDC to get cruising restarted, there hasn't been a safer method of travel. Cruise lines require very high levels of vaccination and embarkation testing and have put in place port agreements and stringent contact tracing and isolation requirements to ensure there are no large-scale outbreaks.
Cruise lines were basically left with no choice but to enroll in this "voluntary" program.
There are many similarities to the Conditional Sail Order:
Ships must collect data daily and report it to the CDC
Ships are color coded by their status over the previous seven days
Isolation, testing and medical facility requirements are very similar.
There are a couple of additions, most notably the tiered vaccination status:
-Not Highly Vaccinated: Less than 95 percent of guests and crew are fully vaccinated
-Highly Vaccinated: More than 95 percent of guests and crew are fully vaccinated
-Vaccination Standard of Excellence: More than 95 percent of guests and crew are vaccinated and boosted.
If you want to read the technical details, then you can do so by visiting the website for the program.
So the ultimate question is what does this mean for cruises going forward?
My answer is much like the CDC...we'll see.
My concerns come from almost two years of experience watching the CDC bat cruise lines around like my cat does the toy at the end of the fishing pole he loves.
I'm cautiously optimistic that cruise lines will continue the protocols they have put in place that have made cruising one of the safest forms of travel with positivity rates that any city, state or country would love to have. Basically, the cruise lines just need to continue what they are doing and there shouldn't be any problem. It is important for us and for the lines not to let their guard down too soon.
I don't know much, but I do have an idea of how the CDC would react to a large outbreak on a cruise ship.
It wouldn't just be a step back, it would be a return to the abyss that has plagued the industry since March of 2020.
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