As the United States sets new records in coronavirus infections, the guidance that’s outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to become optional for cruise lines, reports say, giving companies more control over what protocols they choose to enforce.
In a report published by USA Today on Wednesday (Jan. 12), CDC spokesperson David Daigle confirmed that the health agency is “transitioning to a voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program.”
The new program will include guidance and recommendations for cruise ships to operate in a safe and healthy manner, protecting passengers, crew and the communities the visit, the CDC says.
Cruise ships operating in U.S. waters choosing to participate in the program on a voluntary basis "must agree to follow all recommendations and guidance issued by CDC as part of this program," the CDC states.
Ships sailing in U.S. waters on international voyages that choose not to participate will be classified as "grey" on the CDC’s "Cruise Ship Colour Status" website to indicate the CDC hasn't reviewed their health and safety protocols.
Ships that opt-out and sail only in U.S. waters will not be listed at all, USA Today reported.
The voluntary option will kick in this Saturday (Jan. 15) when the CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, which was extended in October, is set to expire.
More information about the voluntary program will be released on Saturday, the CDC says.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) says the CDC's new voluntary program is proof that the cruise industry has upheld an "unwavering commitment" to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"Cruise is the only segment of travel and tourism that requires, prior to embarkation for both passengers and crew, exceedingly high levels of vaccination (approaching 100% compared to only 63 per cent of the U.S. population) and 100 per cent testing of every individual (21 times the rate of the U.S. on land)," CLIA's Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications, said in a statement to USA Today.
A high-risk activity?
The update comes just over two weeks after the CDC heightened its warning against cruise ship travel and as the U.S., earlier this week, reported a new single-day record of 1.5 million cases of the COVID-19 virus.
On Dec. 30, the CDC raised its travel warning for cruises to the highest level, “Level 4,” as the agency investigated dozens of ships that have had COVID-19 outbreaks, largely linked to the highly-contagious Omicron variant.
The CDC now calls cruising a high-risk activity, even among those who have had their full series of COVID-19 shots.
But CLIA, though committed to working with the CDC, isn’t buying the CDC’s warning entirely.
“…cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a very slim minority of the total population onboard—far fewer than on land—and the majority of those cases are asymptomatic or mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore,” CLIA said in a statement on Dec. 30.
The cruise industry is the only industry in U.S. travel and tourism to require both vaccinations and testing for crew and guests. The sector also administers nearly 10 million tests per week—21 times the rate of testing in the U.S., CLIA says.
Meanwhile, some cruise lines, faced with Omicron-related challenges, are postponing and cancelling some itineraries as it determines next steps.
Last week, Royal Caribbean International, “in an abundance of caution,” cancelled scheduled cruises on four ships, adding to a previously-cancelled voyage in Hong Kong.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) also announced on Jan. 5 that several sailings across its fleet were cancelled “due to ongoing travel restrictions," a move that impacted seven ships.
The cruise industry has also gradually begun to announce new policies on booster shots as a future sailing requirement.
Germany-based luxury line Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, small ship adventure cruise line UnCruise Adventures and river cruise and small ship specialist Grand Circle Cruise Line are three companies that have, so far, announced plans to require COVID-19 booster shots of its guests.