Cruise industry calls on CDC to lift ‘outdated’ restrictions, allow US cruising by July

The cruise industry is ready to sail. And it’s calling out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for what it views as unfair treatment more than a year after being shut down by the health authority in U.S. waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading trade organization, is urging the CDC to lift its “framework for conditional sailing order” to allow cruising to resume in phases by the start of July.

“The outdated CSO, which was issued almost five months ago, does not reflect the industry’s proven advancements and success operating in other parts of the world, nor the advent of vaccines, and unfairly treats cruises differently,” Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of CLIA, which represents 95% of ocean-going cruise capacity, said in a statement.

CLIA noted in a release that since the CDC’s order was issued in October, the CDC hasn’t issued additional guidance as it said it would.

USA TODAY has reached out to the CDC for comment. 

“The lack of any action by the CDC has effectively banned all sailings in the largest cruise market in the world,” CLIA said. Cruising, CLIA claimed, is the “only sector” of the American economy that remains shut down.

“Cruise lines should be treated the same as other travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors,” Craighead said.

CLIA said the industry’s desire to resume cruising in July is in line with President Joe Biden’s forecast for normalcy in the United States.

Why cruising has had such a long COVID shutdown 

Cruising was in the spotlight at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess was forced to quarantine early in 2020. The ship suffered an outbreak infecting more than 700 on board and killing more than a dozen. It was the first ship of many, including its sister ship Grand Princess, to experience COVID-19-related outbreaks. 

Cruise ships’ close-contact environments increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases, and that risk of spread doesn’t stop when passengers disembark at ports or at the end of a journey, Dr. Martin Cetron, director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine for the CDC, told USA TODAY last year.

“Now the virus is amplified … and scattered,” Cetron said in July. “It’s quite clear this is a formula for accelerated introduction, transmission and then accelerated spread.”

In this file photo taken on December 23, 2020, the cruise ship "The Harmony of the Seas" part of the Royal Caribbean International fleet, is moored at a quay in the port of Miami, Florida. (Photo: DANIEL SLIM, AFP via Getty Images)

Cruising abroad is working and COVID safe, according to industry

Craighead cited cruises that have resumed in Europe, the South Pacific and Asia as evidence that a “highly-controlled resumption of cruising” can be done successfully. Craighead said that nearly 400,000 passengers have sailed on ships that have “effectively mitigated the spread of COVID-19.”

Since cruising resumed abroad in the summer, CLIA has been tracking publicly reported instances of COVID-19 cases on its member cruise lines. There were 39 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 13 false positives during those sailings carrying almost 400,000 people, Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA’s vice president of strategic communications, told USA TODAY. 

Additional sailings have been scheduled by cruise lines aiming to cater to Americans customers outside of U.S. waters, including in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean, for this spring and summer.

“The cruise industry has adopted a high bar for resumption around the world with a multi-layered set of policies that is intended to be revised as conditions change,” Craighead said, referencing requirements implemented by CLIA in September, including masks, social distancing and COVID testing, among others. 

Vaccines not necessarily a requirement if sailing is allowed to resume

While Craighead said that “the accelerated rollout of vaccines is a gamechanger,” CLIA hasn’t initiated a broad COVID vaccine requirement.

But some cruise lines have already taken steps of their own to require vaccines for passengers and crew. 

Virgin Voyages, Richard Branson’s adult-only cruise line, for example, will require all passengers and crew to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before boarding, the company announced last week. 

And Royal Caribbean Group has announced a vaccine requirement for some of its ships, including its newest ship set to sail in Israel this May, and on vessels departing from the Bahamas, Bermuda and St. Maarten.

Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Costa Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp. have all said they intend to require vaccines for crew members.

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