The CDC’s Technical Guidance for Cruise Ships Explained

In a classic Friday afternoon news dump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an update to their conditional sail order with a number of new rules cruise lines will have to follow if they want to resume operation. After a week of taking heat from politicians, particularly in Florida, about working off outdated information, many were hoping the CDC would relax their conditions, but it looks like the exact opposite has happened. Instead, the CDC issued a laundry list of new requirements like daily instead of weekly COVID-19 reporting, new protocols for ports of call and new parameters for onboard testing laboratories among others.

They also neglected to offer an updated timeline for when cruise lines would be allowed to sail from American ports, meaning the November date is still in play. As for test cruises, there’s also no timeline for when those would begin operating. 

The CDC’s Four-Step Plan

The most notable update to the conditional sail order is the implementation of “phases” which will gradually allow cruise ships to resume operation. Prior to last Friday, we were at phase one of the plan. Now, we’re at phase two, but what actually changed? Nothing good, from our perspective.

Essentially, the CDC is now requiring ports of call to adhere to the same protocols they require for ships. The CDC’s position is that it’s all well and good to make sure people on board are safe, but what about when they get off in port? Those mingling in the local community followed disembarkation are still at risk of contracting COVID-19, so ensuring that local authorities are prepared in the event of an outbreak is a top priority for the CDC. 

When test cruises do begin, cruise lines must setup a number of protocols and establish infrastructure in conjunction with local authorities at every port they call on. These include documenting the approval of all U.S. port and local health authorities where the ship intends to dock or make port, incorporate housing agreements between the cruise ship operator and one or more shoreside facilities for isolation and quarantine of persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and close contacts, and establish emergency response plans in the event of a worst case scenario of multiple ships experiencing simultaneous outbreaks of COVID-19. 

The CDC also asks ports to take into consideration if multiple ships see an outbreak, does the port have the necessary medical facilities and infrastructure in place to ensure all sick passengers are cared for. For some of these smaller Caribbean islands, that could mean limiting the number of ships are allowed in port at once or in a day. 

Color-Coded System for Ships 

The CDC also instituted a color-coded systems to classify ships when a ship is cleared to sail. The colors are green, yellow, orange and red. It goes without saying, we don’t want any ships in the red if we want to get cruising again.

“Green” ships are ones which have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 for 14 days as determined by a health professional. This includes crew as well as passengers. To maintain Green status, ships must submit a daily EDC form to CDC. Failure to submit by 9am ET each day changes ship status immediately to “red”. Ships with “green” status will be allowed to continue with their test cruises. 

“Orange” ships are classified as having one or more confirmed COVID-19 case among newly embarking crew who were diagnosed during their mandatory 14-day quarantine. Orange also includes ships with reported ill people, but that have tested negative for COVID-19.

“Yellow” ships include those previously designated Green or Orange, but now has one or more COVID-19-like illness but the ship has no remaining testing kits or ability to test for whatever reason. If, after testing is established, all cases are negative, the ship returns to “orange” status. If those tests are positive, the ship moves to “red”.

“Red” ships are those with positive COVID-19 cases on board or have crew members transferred onboard without the mandatory 14-day quarantine. Ships are also classified as “red” if they miss their daily 9am submission of the EDC form to the CDC. “Red” ships also feature a laundry list of requirements to get back into the green. First, they need to relocate all COVID-positive crew to single-occupancy cabins with private bathrooms. Crew are also instructed to remain during non-work hours even if they are not sick. All face-to-face employee meetings are cancelled as well as closing all crew common areas like gyms and bars. Crew on board “red” ships must wear a face covering at all times and practice social distancing. Cruise lines must also increase the number of hand sanitization stations for crew and place informational posters about proper hygiene in common areas. 

Will the CDC Require the COVID-19 Vaccine to Sail? 

One thing to note, however, is the CDC did not go so far to require the COVID-19 vaccine for all cruise passengers. They do, however, encourage all travelers and cruise line crew to get vaccinated.

“COVID-19 vaccination efforts will be critical in the safe resumption of passenger operations,” the CDC said in their updated order. “As more people are fully vaccinated, the phased approach allows CDC to incorporate these advancements into planning for resumption of cruise ship travel when it is safe to do so. CDC recommends that all eligible port personnel and travelers (passengers and crew) get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available to them.”

From our point of view, the CDC has just made it even harder for cruise lines to adhere to their conditions by looping in ports of call as well. What’s frustrating is the CDC gave no indication of when the second step of Phase 2, test sailings, could begin. We’ve been given new requirements, but still no concrete timeline for when we might actually get to sail again. Given how strict the requirements are, it’s pretty obvious the CDC doesn’t want cruise lines operation from American ports anytime soon. 

What are your thoughts on the CDC’s new requirements? Let us know in the comments below!