US cruises could restart soon with 'passenger voyages by mid-July,' CDC says

Morgan Hines

Cruising could restart in midsummer in American waters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late Wednesday in a letter to the cruise industry that USA TODAY obtained. 

"We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity and that the goal of the CSO’s phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities," wrote Aimee Treffiletti, head of the Maritime Unit for CDC’s COVID-19 response within its Global Mitigation Task Force. . 

In a statement about the letter, spokesperson Caitlin Shockey gave USA TODAY a more specific timeline. Cruises could begin passenger voyages from the United States in mid-July, depending on cruise lines' pace and compliance with the CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing Order

The Carnival Vista cruise ship sails during a pink super moon near Miami Beach, Fla., on April 26.

"CDC looks forward to continued engagement with the industry and urges cruise lines to submit Phase 2A port agreements as soon as possible to maintain the timeline of passenger voyages by mid-July," Shockey said.

Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president for strategic communications for trade group Cruise Lines International Association, told USA TODAY in a statement Thursday that the industry is encouraged by the CDC's communication.

"Our technical experts are currently reviewing the information and its implications, but we are optimistic that these clarifications show positive progression – and, importantly, a demonstrated commitment to constructive dialogue, which is key to restarting cruising as we have seen with other governments and health authorities around the world," Golin-Blaugrund said.

She added that the letter shows that the cruise community's voice has been heard. "We are very grateful for that," she said.

"We are hopeful that the CDC’s most recent letter is a harbinger of more good things to come," Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., told USA TODAY on Thursday.

And on Thursday morning, in a statement ahead of Royal Caribbean Group's earnings call, chairman and CEO Richard Fain said he was pleased with the news.

"Last night, the CDC notified us of some clarifications and amplifications of their Conditional Sail Order, which addressed uncertainties and concerns we had raised," Fain said. "They have dealt with many of these items in a constructive manner that takes into account recent advances in vaccines and medical science. Although this is only part of a very complex process, it encourages us that we now see a pathway to a healthy and achievable return to service, hopefully in time for an Alaskan season."

The letter came on the heels of a month of twice-weekly meetings with cruise industry representatives. During those meetings, the industry and the health agency discussed the Conditional Sailing Order.

While the CDC outlined a potential restart date for cruises departing from U.S. ports this summer, that doesn't mean that the restrictions on cruises are lifted. The CDC offered clarifications to its guidance based on industry feedback and still expects cruise lines to meet its requirements before sailing can resume.

"The timeline for resailing is dependent on the cruise operators’ pace and compliance with the Conditional Sailing Order," Shockey told USA TODAY Thursday. "Ships with a vaccination attestation will be able to bypass simulated voyages, speeding up the timeline for those operators."

Based on industry feedback, the CDC landed on five clarifications to its additional guidance issued April 2 to allow a resumption of sailing:

  • Ships can bypass the required simulated test voyages carrying volunteers and jump to sailings with paying passengers if 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.
  • CDC will review and respond to applications from cruise lines for simulated voyages within five days, a review previously expected to take 60 days.
  • CDC will update its testing and quarantine requirements for passengers and crew on sailings with paying passengers to align with the CDC's guidance for fully vaccinated people. So, for example, instead of taking a PCR lab test ahead of boarding, vaccinated passengers can take a rapid antigen test upon embarkation. 
  • CDC has clarified that cruise ship operators may enter into a "multi-port agreement" rather than a single port agreement as long as all port and local authorities sign the agreement. 
  • The CDC has clarified guidance on quarantine guidelines for passengers who may be exposed to or contract COVID-19. For example, local passengers may be able to drive home and passengers who have traveled by air to cruise may quarantine in a hotel.

Whether to restart cruising in U.S. subject to pressure from all sides

Over the past month or so, the CDC has been subject to pressure from many sides on whether to restart or hold off.

At the end of March, the cruise industry pushed for the CDC to lift its Conditional Sailing Order, calling the agency's restrictions "outdated." Other travel sector members voiced their support for a hastened return to sailing, too.

And politicians have played tug of war with the issue, too. Some legislators are pushing the CDC to allow cruises to restart while others are asking the agency to continue to  delay allowing ships to sail due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

In a letter sent this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., urged the CDC's Walensky to maintain current restrictions on cruising.

Their letter came on the heels of a lawsuit brought by Florida against the CDC, which Alaska has joined, and new legislation proposed by Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida and Dan Sullivan of Alaska aiming to override the CDC's restrictions on cruising and get ships sailing by July.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg also weighed in on the cruise industry's slow restart at a White House press briefing April 9, stating he knows the CDC is "hopeful" for cruise lines to be in a position to sail by midsummer.

"Well, the bottom line is safety," he said. "Airplanes have one safety profile; cruise ships have another; vehicles have another. And each one needs to be treated based on what’s safe for that sector."

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Read the CDC letter

The first page of letter sent from the CDC to the cruise industry obtained by USA TODAY.
Second page of CDC letter to cruise industry obtained by USA TODAY.
Page 3 of CDC letter to cruise industry obtained by USA TODAY.
Page 4 of letter from CDC to cruise industry obtained by USA TODAY.