In a surprise announcement, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated today that, effective immediately, the COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships that has provided guidelines for pre-cruise and onboard health and safety protocols, as well as the color classification system for cruise ships, has ended. What does this mean for cruise travelers in the coming days and weeks?
COVID-19 Program Ends
The “voluntary” program for all cruise ships operating in U.S. waters was first implemented in February 2022, after the expiration of the more restrictive conditional sail order.
This program allowed cruise lines to opt in to its guidance, providing another layer of public checks on health and safety protocols to reassure passengers about the safety of cruise travel.
Just six months later, the CDC has ended the program with a statement on its website, which reads:
“As of July 18, 2022, CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships is no longer in effect and this page will no longer be updated. New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days.”
The purpose of the CDC’s program was to more closely monitor cruise ships and track outbreaks of COVID-19 aboard vessels. Ships were assigned color codes – green, yellow, orange, red, or gray – to indicate the number of cases detected onboard.
As recently as the morning of July 18, the day the order was dropped, every single one of the 95 vessels being tracked by the CDC was classified as “orange” – indicating cases onboard and that the CDC was beginning or continuing an investigation into the ship’s mitigation measures.
No ships were classified as “red” meaning a disastrous outbreak, none were “green” (no cases), and none were “yellow” (a few cases).
What Does This Mean for Cruise Travel?
The suspension of this program does not mean the CDC will no longer offer guidance to cruise ships or advice to travelers.
Instead, cruise lines and ships will be able to develop their own protocols, taking into account guidance from the CDC, but they are not required to follow regimented steps.
According to the CDC’s FAQ about the program’s end, “Cruise ships have access to guidance and tools to manage their own COVID-19 mitigation programs. Additionally, cruise travelers have access to recommendations that allow them to make informed decisions about cruise ship travel.”
“While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward,” the FAQ reads.
Cruise travelers will undoubtedly be waiting eagerly for cruise lines to update their protocols or to clarify guidelines with respect to pre-cruise testing requirements, vaccination requirements, letters of exemption for unvaccinated passengers, and other protocols.
Cruise Lines Yet to Respond
No major cruise line has made an immediate announcement of any changes to current protocols, and it is likely to be several days before protocols may change.
Carnival Cruise Line brand ambassador John Heald is already fielding questions from passengers via his Facebook page.
“Lots of you are asking me what’s going to happen after the latest CDC announcement. I don’t have any news but as soon as [there is] any we will of course share it with you,” Heald said.
It is unreasonable to expect that cruise lines will immediately drop any and all COVID-19 measures, as the goal behind the protocols has always been to keep guests, crew members, and port communities safe.
Furthermore, it is likely that cruise lines will need to reach out not only to their own administrative teams and health advisors, but also to the different destinations they visit to ensure compliance with all local directives. Failing to do so could easily result in the denial of port privileges, resulting in canceled ports of call and dramatically altered itineraries.
This news comes after there have been several signs of relaxing COVID-19 protocols in recent weeks. Just three days ago, the popular Caribbean cruise destination of Belize dropped all COVID-19 travel restrictions.
In early July, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings dropped all pre-cruise testing requirements for all its cruise lines in areas where such tests were not explicitly required. With that policy change slated to go into effect on August 1, Norwegian Cruise Line may be the first to end pre-cruise testing in the United States.
Viking similarly ended pre-cruise testing except where it was regionally required, and both Holland America Line and P&O Cruises have had limited tests of selected sailings without pre-cruise testing on ships in Europe.
Stay tuned to Cruise Hive for further updates as different cruise lines and ports react to this news.