May 17, 2022

Covid updates from CDC to help cruises

Alaska looks forward to a good cruise season for 2022.

(Politico.com Jan. 15, 2022) By Alex Daugherty – The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is poised to loosen the industry’s Covid restrictions, saying cruise lines are now positioned to police themselves.

Just two weeks ago, the agency was recommending against cruising even for vaccinated passengers, and the agency’s official guidance states “even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.” The CDC is grappling with a host of Covid restrictions as it copes with Omicron’s onslaught while trying to balance public health and a still-fragile economy.

“We have to weigh what our opportunities are and how we protect our community members,” said U.S. Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, who has the authority to determine what ships are allowed to dock in the U.S. territory. “We negotiate with the cruise lines on an ongoing basis.”

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s decisions in a Senate HELP Committee hearing this week, saying federal officials and the cruise industry reached an agreement that will keep cruises on the water. She said after the CDC prohibited cruise lines from docking in the United States, the industry “has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding … compliance with the sail order — without the order even necessarily being in place — is a testament to how that order has worked and our collaboration with the industry.”

The state of cruising

In March 2020, the cruise industry was at a low point, regularly in the news with nightmare stories about how Covid ripped through passengers. Even though most ships aren’t registered in the U.S., its citizens make up by far the world’s largest market for cruising, and the CDC’s “no-sail” order, which prohibited ships from March 2020 to June 2021 — crippled the industry.

The CDC’s prohibition essentially forced the industry to make nice. And in June, cruise companies agreed to CDC conditions that would let them sail again, including proving that the vast majority of not only crew but passengers on board were vaccinated.

Omicron’s appearance  presents fresh challenges. Of the 109 cruise ships the CDC is tracking, only 12 are reporting zero Covid cases on board. Participation in these reporting requirements once the order is lifted will be voluntary but all major cruise lines have pledged to continue.

Unlike spring of 2020, calls to shut down cruises again are muted. Some lines had already canceled cruises for the 2022 season. The major players in the industry mandate vaccines for everyone on board, including passengers — a standard that few industries can boast.

“With broader access to vaccines, we are, thankfully, in a different place than we were back in 2020,” said House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.). “However, CDC … must continue to closely monitor the risk to cruise passengers and continue to provide science-based guidance.”

The Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s lobbying arm, said their clients are the only segment of the travel and tourism industry that requires vaccination for almost all passengers and crew, and tests everyone on board.

“Further, cruise is the only sector that continuously monitors, collects, and reports case information directly to the CDC,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA’s vice president of strategic communications and public affairs. “Given this oversight and the uniquely high vaccination rate required on board, the incidence of serious illness is dramatically lower than on land, and hospitalizations have been extraordinarily rare even during a time when landside hospitalizations are peaking.”

Federal policy and court fights

The cruise industry won another battle in August, when a federal judge blocked a Florida law that prevented cruise lines from requiring passengers to prove they’re vaccinated, effectively allowing the industry to impose their own vaccine mandates. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said during a committee hearing this week that revoking the conditional sail order was critical for communities in her state that rely on summer cruise revenue to survive.

Cruise cancellations

Cruise Critic reports that the omicron COVID-19 surge has caused several cruise lines, including Fred Olsen, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean International, and Windstar — to cancel upcoming cruises on several vessels.

For some ships, the cancellations are short term, with just a few cruises affected. But for others, the pause in operations extends several months or wipes out an entire season.

On January 11, Norwegian Cruise Line informed passengers that near-term sailings on additional ships would be canceled, primarily for departures over the next two weeks (details below). The move follows the line’s previous cruise suspensions that were announced during the first week of January. Additional cancellations were announced on January 19.

Cases of omicron have occurred onboard among passengers and crew but at lower levels of spread than is happening on land, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. While omicron doesn’t seem to have the same levels of severity and hospitalization rates as other COVID-19 variants, it is fast spreading across the U.S. and other countries due to its transmissibility. It’s peak is predicted to be at the end of January for the U.S. and the U.K.

About Anne Vipond

Anne Vipond is the author of several guidebooks to cruising destinations around the world. She draws on an extensive sailing background to impart her enthusiasm for cruise travel. From her home port of Vancouver, she travels by cruise ship to a wide range of destinations to keep her books current and useful for her cruise readers. Her cruising articles have been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and over seas.