The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “no-sail” order – a directive introduced in March that prevented large cruise ships from sailing in United States waters – expired Saturday night (Oct. 31), paving the way for the cruise industry's possible return after months of pandemic-related shutdowns.
It’s not a light-switch approach, mind you.
In place of the order, the CDC released a "Framework for Conditional Sailing Order for Cruise Ships", which officially began on Sunday (Nov. 1).
This will allow cruise ships to gradually resume service out of U.S. ports, in phases, pending they meet a long list of conditions (which can be viewed here).
Cruise companies must show they can adhere to COVID testing, specific sanitization methods, and social distancing, quarantining, and isolating when necessary in order to obtain a COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate issued by the CDC.
Many brands — including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney and others — have cancelled cruises leaving from U.S. ports until at least December, but the news was certainly embraced by many in the industry.
In a statement, Royal Caribbean acknowledged that it still had lots to do to prepare for a resumption of services, such as training staff on new protocols and operating some “test” cruises, but noted that it looks forward to welcoming guests back.
The marketplace has perked up, too. Shares of Carnival soared more than 11 per cent on Friday before levelling off and closing more than 5 per cent higher.
Norwegian Cruise Line also finished that day more than 5 per cent higher and Royal Caribbean stock closed up almost 5 per cent.
“The expiration of the no-sail order represents great news and it is something all of us in the cruise industry have been eagerly awaiting,” said cruise expert and travel writer Ming Tappin of Your Cruise Coach. “There is no argument that, as the only travel sector that has been completely shut down since March, the cruise industry has suffered great losses.”
“I am extremely encouraged and look forward to the phased-in return to service, and I am confident that the cruise lines will do a stellar job in providing a safe environment for all guests and crew.”
The CDC ending its ban on cruises comes at a turbulent time as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in both Canada and the U.S.
On Friday, the U.S. reported 99,321 new COVID-19 cases – the highest single-day number of cases recorded for any country – taking the country’s total to 9,208,956 cases as of Monday morning (Nov. 2), according to a tally generated by Johns Hopkins University.
Canadians continue to face their own travel barriers, too, including a federal non-essential travel advisory and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning travellers.
The Government of Canada continues to uphold its official warning to "avoid all cruise travel outside of Canada until further notice."
Meanwhile, on Oct. 29, Canada's Minister of Transport Marc Garneau announced that Canada is extending its ban on large cruise ships until at least Feb. 28, 2021.
Given the situation, is it too soon to resume cruising in U.S. waters?
“No, it’s not,” said Tappin. “Cruising has already successfully resumed in Europe with positive results. In addition to their own healthy sail plan, American-based ships also have the benefit of emulating or enhancing the proven protocols from their European counterparts.”
Cruising outside of the U.S. did, indeed, resume gradually in various parts of the world over the summer.
In August, for example, the MSC Grandiosa became the first ship with MSC Cruises to welcome guests back in Italy under enhanced health and safety protocols.
Guests on that voyage were subject to strict screening protocols, which included temperature checks, medical reviews of health questionnaires and an antigen COVID-19 swab test for every guest prior to boarding.
“Just like Europe, North America will see a phased-in return to service,” said Tappin. “The restart will only be a handful of sailings, ships will operate under reduced capacity with strict protective measures, offering shorter trips either to the cruise line’s private island or maybe even just days at sea.”
Are Canadians ready to cruise?
But what about Canadian travellers? Are they ready to start cruising again?
Tappin says that travellers who appreciate the benefits of cruising and “understand the level of safety and sanitation that cruise ships offer” will not hesitate to sail again.
“It really comes down to a personal choice,” she said. “Those who are not comfortable with having to take multiple COVID tests, wearing a mask, and being subjected to restrictions while on vacation will not travel, whether it’s by ship or on land.”
Canada’s quarantine order, not having access to a vaccine, and the idea of travelling to ports in the U.S. where COVD-19 is spreading are other deterrents, Tappin explained.
“Of course, the biggest concern everyone will have is the fear of a COVID-19 outbreak onboard and then, subsequently, being trapped or stranded at sea, as we saw in March,” said Tappin. “But the public should also know that the cruise lines have worked tirelessly to plan a safe return to sea, including the development of 74 health and safety recommendations that combine regular testing of all guests and crew, increased sanitation, contact tracing and monitoring practices before, during, and after the voyage.”
Those recommendations can be found within a 64-page report developed by the Healthy Sail Panel, a group unveiled in June that set out to develop recommendations for cruise lines to advance their public health response to COVID-19.
A partnership between Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the guidance was submitted to the CDC as part of the agency’s request for public comment. (Click here to read it).
“There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 in any environment,” said Tappin. “But there will be comprehensive procedures in place to manage infection and protect the ship’s complement should an outbreak occur. It’s been done with Norovirus, SARS, MERS, and Zika. It will be done with COVID-19.”
What about insurance?
Finding proper COVID-friendly insurance for a cruise may also be tricky for Canadians.
While many companies have unrolled COVID-19 travel protection plans, cruising isn’t always part of the deal given the Canadian government’s advisory to avoid travel on all cruise ships outside of Canada.
“If an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs on your cruise ship while you’re outside of Canada, our ability to help may be limited,” reads a statement on the government’s website.
Tappin says the limited insurance options for cruises is “yet another example of how the cruise industry has been stigmatized by the pandemic.”
“COVID-19 can be contracted while on airplanes, at land-based resorts, theme parks – basically anywhere people choose to vacation,” she said. “Why are cruise ships - the only travel segment that will have 100 per cent testing 100 per cent of the time and will practice the highest vigilance in outbreak prevention and traveller protection – being exempt from insurance coverage?”
“It really goes back to the insurance company’s myopic perception of cruising versus the reality,” she said. “I sincerely hope their views will change.”
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