During the January 11, 2022 U.S. Senate committee hearing addressing new variants and the overall COVID-19 response, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky praised cruise lines’ collaboration with the CDC and the effectiveness of their response to onboard cases, at the same time predicting that the Conditional Sail Order will not be renewed when it expires on January 15.
Hearing Discusses COVID Response, Including Cruises
During the 4-hour meeting, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions addressed a variety of issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the response to the new Omicron variant that has cases surging worldwide.
The discussion included a brief discussion of the cruise industry’s cooperation with the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
During the hearing, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska praised the cruise industry’s response to the pandemic, saying “In fairness, the industry itself had undertaken extraordinary precautions, as one industry, to make sure that people are protected from this virus.” She went on to ask Dr. Walensky for assurances that the 2022 Alaskan cruise season would indeed go forward.
CDC Director Praises Cruises Lines
In response to Sen. Mukowski’s concerns, Dr. Walensky replied, “The industry has stepped up and is now interested in exceeding the compliance with the Sail Order without the order necessarily needing to be in place.”
The Conditional Sailing Order was first issued on October 30, 2020. The order was amended several times as recommendations and guidelines have changed to meet the evolving conditions of the pandemic, and in October 2021 in light of the Delta variant, it was temporarily extended until January 15, 2022.
The CDC and the cruise industry have worked collaboratively to manage health and safety protocols, as well as responses to onboard cases, to ensure ships’ medical facilities are not overwhelmed and port hospital resources are not strained.
Cases Increase, But CSO Unlikely to Be Extended
Walensky did note that “just over the last two weeks with Omicron, we’ve seen a 30-fold increase in cases on ships.” She went on, however, to say “we anticipate that this [CSO] will not be renewed and that the cruise ship industries will continue to understand that this is a really safe practice,” referring to the health and safety protocols cruise lines have already implemented with the CDC’s guidance and recommendations.
The CDC will continue to provide technical assistance and oversight with cruise lines to ensure the safest possible practices even after the Conditional Sailing Order ends.
Walensky did say, however, that she “can’t predict what the summer will bring.”
It is possible, then, that even if the CSO is allowed to expire on January 15, a new CDC directive or additional guidance may be drafted if pandemic conditions require such intervention.
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This would come as no surprise to cruise travelers, who have witnessed cruise lines adapting vaccination and testing requirements, mask policies, contact tracing, social distancing, and other onboard protocols as needed based on updated CDC guidance as well as requirements from different ports of call cruise ship homeports.
For the upcoming weeks and months, all cruisers will need to be flexible with their expectations for cruise travel and willing to adapt to changing conditions as needed.