The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a surprise development announced at the end of the day yesterday that its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships is no longer in effect. While saying that it would continue to provide guidance to the cruise lines and travelers, it was the latest step by the agency to relax its restrictions and oversight of the cruise industry which drew broad criticism at the height of the pandemic.
In the FAQ portion of its website, the CDC highlights that it has worked closely with the cruise industry, state, territorial, and local health authorities, and federal and seaport partners to provide a safer and healthier environment for cruise passengers and crew. Going forward, the CDC said that cruise ships have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs.
After imposing strict testing and masking restrictions as well as elaborate protocols the CDC permitted cruise ships to resume sailing from U.S. ports in the summer of 2021 while it also warned travelers of the high risk of infection on cruise ships and maintained advisories against cruise travel. The CDC moved to a voluntary program in 2022 in which all of the major cruise ships sailing from the U.S. elected to participate in and continued to report outbreaks of the virus. The CDC took a two-stage approach with its approach with lesser recommendations for masking and social distance aboard ships that maintained a highly vaccinated standard for passengers and crew while advising more precautions for the remainder of the cruise industry.
As part of the system, the CDC was operating a color-coding system to highlight ships that had recently experienced outbreaks of the virus. With the increasing spread of subvariants of the virus, the color-coding system was recently showing that most ships had experienced cases of COVID0-19 on board.
“The previous color-coding system under CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships depended upon each cruise line having the same COVID-19 screening testing standards, which may now vary among cruise lines. Therefore, the cruise ship color status webpage has been retired,” the CDC says on its website.
With the spread of the variants of the virus, the CDC continues to warn travelers of the dangers but it had previously lowered its cruise-specific warnings to be in line with other settings. They however continue to advise passengers that they should not travel if they recently experienced COVID-19 symptoms and should test no more than three days before their cruise and between three and five days after their cruise. These also continue to advise on frequent handwashing and the use of masks in crowded locations.
While the official end to CDC’s programs should provide the cruise lines greater latitude in their approaches, experts point out that the ships are still required to follow local requirements and their agreements with ports. Recently, cruise companies including Norwegian Cruise Lines Holding, the parent of Norwegian, Regent, and Oceania, announced it would be ending its pre-testing requirements for some trips while a month ago Viking also said it was ending its requirements for pre-boarding and onboard testing. The protocols for isolating passengers who test positive are likely to remain in place indefinitely. Anecdotally passengers have been reporting an increasing variance in the onboard protocols between ships with some cruise lines fluctuating on steps such as requiring versus recommending masking.