Starting on Saturday, Jan. 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Conditional Sail Order, which governed how cruise lines could operate in a COVID environment including reporting requirements for COVID-19 cases and rules for mitigation and isolation onboard, will no longer be mandatory.
Instead, cruise lines will be able to decide for themselves whether to follow the program as the CDC makes the program voluntary.
According to USA Today, which first reported the news on Wednesday, cruise lines will have until Jan. 21 to opt-in. If they do so, their ships will still appear on the CDC’s Cruise Ship Color Status Page, which designates ships based on COVID-19 numbers during sailings.
If cruise lines opt not to continue operating under the Conditional Sail Order, their ships will be listed as gray on the CDC’s website.
The CDC has also changed some of the language in the Conditional Sail Order, giving cruise lines a little more flexibility when dealing with the pandemic.
For instance, the threshold for investigation by the CDC goes from .1% cases in passengers onboard to .3%, and self-service food at buffets or other eateries onboard will be allowed onboard once again. Other requirements like mask-wearing and testing are expected to continue.
More changes are expected to be revealed on Jan. 15 when the old order officially expires.
While the news is good news for the cruise industry, and an apparent federal vote of confidence in how the industry has operated in the COVID environment, the CDC's decision comes just a few weeks after it revealed a new advisory for cruise ship travel, telling all travelers, regardless of their vaccination status, to avoid cruise ship travel in light of the new rise in COVID-19 cases.
“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters onboard ships, and the chance of getting COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you are fully vaccinated and have received a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose,” the CDC’s new Level 4 warning, the highest level of advisory, still reads.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) responded late last month, writing in a statement that “the decision by the CDC to raise the travel level for cruise is particularly perplexing considering the cases identified on cruise ships consistently make up a slim minority of the total population onboard.”
CLIA added that the majority of cases onboard or either asymptomatic or “mild in nature, posing little to no burden on medical resources onboard or onshore.”
CLIA, along with the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), have long pushed against CDC restrictions on cruise ships, as infection rates in the industry have been lower than overall infection rates in the U.S.
“Cruise ships offer a highly controlled environment with science-backed measures, known testing and vaccinated levels far above other venues or modes of transportation and travel, and significantly lower incidence rates than land,” CLIA’s statement continued.