Exclusive: Cruise industry announces US sailing suspension extended until Sept. 15

Morgan Hines

Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the global ocean-going cruise industry, says its member cruise lines have voluntarily extended the suspension of U.S. cruise operations until Sept. 15 amid coronavirus concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "no-sail order" is scheduled to expire on July 24, but no extension has yet been announced. It said in a statement Sunday to USA TODAY that it supports the CLIA's decision to extend the suspension. 

"The guest profile on typical cruise ship voyages matches those at greatest risk for severe illness which may require hospitalization and need for respiratory support," read the CDC statement. "Moreover, the population density on cruise ships tends to be higher than most urban settings, and even when populations are reduced, we still observe ongoing spread of COVID-19 illness due to the congregated setting and greater chance of closer physical contact. Sailings without guest passengers and with a markedly reduced crew size since April has continued to prove how difficult it is to control and eradicate COVID infections and outbreaks in the maritime environment."

CLIA's member lines carry 95% of the world's ocean-going cruisers. The new order will apply to all CLIA member ships the CDC order applies to – vessels that can carry 250 or more passengers.

"Although we had hoped that cruise activity in the U.S. could resume as soon as possible after that date, it is increasingly clear that more time will be needed to resolve barriers to resumption in the United States," Bari Golin-Blaugrund, senior director for strategic communications told USA TODAY, noting the organization informed the CDC of its continued voluntary suspension.

The extension comes with a caveat: The suspension will be continually reevaluated as Sept. 15 approaches and may be extended further, Golin-Blaugrund said.

"We want the traveling public to know in no uncertain terms that when we do resume operations in the U.S., it will be with the confidence that we have the necessary protocols and systems in place, and that we have done so with the input of the CDC," she added.

Major lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, have already extended their sailing suspensions well into fall, and Canada issued a ban on cruises in the country's waters through Oct. 31.

The group's global board of directors met on Friday and put the decision to a vote. All members agreed to adhere to the suspension.

The decision leaves nearly three months before major cruise companies, including cruising giant Carnival Corp., can ramp up their operations.

"CLIA cruise line members are using this time to explore new ideas and concepts to further enhance already stringent public health protocols and policies," Golin-Blaugrund said. "Additionally, caring for and repatriating crew members is the No. 1 priority for CLIA cruise line members right now."

Specific plans for the coronavirus and general health onboard are still being developed. Golin-Blaugrund said the industry is taking a "holistic approach."

"One theme that continues to emerge in these conversations is the concept of a 'door to door' strategy, beginning at the time of booking through the return of passengers to their homes," she said.

The industry also is looking to bolster screening protocol, implement additional health and sanitation practices for ships and terminals, and onboard prevention, surveillance and response. 

CLIA members are also looking to explore enhanced passenger and crew screening, social distancing, modifying or eliminating buffet dining options, enhanced onboard medical capability, new training for crew members and pre-arranged medical evacuation options with consideration to local healthcare.

Friday, when asked about the no-sail order ahead of CLIA's decision, Caitlin Shockey, spokesperson for the CDC, told USA TODAY the CDC was still monitoring the situation on cruise ships and was reviewing cruise lines' plans.

"At this point in time, we do not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing."