CDC Reacts to Face Mask Ruling, How It Impacts Cruises

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With the news that U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle has overturned the federal mask mandate related to public transportation and transportation hubs, many travelers are overjoyed at no longer being required to wear masks.

Other travelers prefer to be cautious and may still choose to wear a mask. But what does the lifting of the mandate mean for cruise travelers, especially in port terminals?

What Overturning the Mandate Means

The immediate impact of removing the mask mandate on public transportation means that travelers are no longer required to wear face masks on public transportation or in transportation hubs.

As posted on the website for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “As a result of a court order, effective immediately and as of April 18, 2022, CDC’s January 29, 2021 Order requiring masks on public transportation conveyances and at transportation hubs is no longer in effect. Therefore, CDC will not enforce the Order.”

CDC Sign
Photo Credit: University of College / Shutterstock

This does not mean, however, that there will be no mask requirements moving forward.

All airlines have the authority to continue to require masks on their flights. At this time, many of the largest carriers operating in the United States – including Delta Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Alaska Airlines – have already announced that masks will now be optional on their flights and up to each traveler’s discretion.

Airlines will continue to coordinate with their destinations, however, and in areas where stricter regulations are in place, masks may yet be required on flights.

The same is true about cruise lines and cruise travel. If a cruise line prefers to require masks onboard, the company has the discretion to implement that policy. Furthermore, cruise lines that experience outbreaks of COVID-19 may, at any time, require face coverings on impacted vessels.

For cruise lines that have opted into CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, CDC will continue to exercise enforcement discretion, including protocols for both crew members and passengers on board cruise ships. This may mean updates to the policy, including mask requirements, as conditions continue to change.

Furthermore, cruise lines are continually coordinating with the different destinations they visit, sometimes multiple countries for a single itinerary, to ensure consistent health and safety protocols to protect not only cruise passengers, but also ship crew members and local communities. Because of varied protocols, it is not easy to apply one single policy to every cruise or destination.

What About in Cruise Terminals?

One of the biggest questions cruise travelers have is whether or not masks will continue to be required in embarkation and debarkation terminals. Because those terminals fall under the jurisdiction of the TSA, it is unlikely that masks will continue to be required, but local policies will be up to port authority officials and based on local guidelines.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which has authority over cruise terminals, posted a statement to their website on April 18 that reads, “Due to today’s court ruling, effective immediately, TSA will no longer enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs.”

Carnival Cruise Line Embarkation
Photo Credit: JHVEPhoto / Shutterstock

Cruise lines are already being asked about their policies. John Heald, brand ambassador for Carnival Cruise Line, stated in a Facebook video that changes have not yet been implemented at embarkation, but that “if there are any changes, we of course will let you know quickly.”

“For now, if you are heading to the embarkation building, please make sure that you have a mask with you. You will still be required to wear one,” Heald said. “If and when that changes, and I’m sure it will, but I don’t know when, we will let you know.”

Heald also reminds guests that all ports of call are not governed by United States laws, and their mask guidelines will vary. Guests are advised to always have masks with them in order to comply with local guidelines.

Guests booked aboard Royal Caribbean sailings in the next few days have also reported being notified via email that masks continue to be required at embarkation.

While no longer a mandated requirement, the CDC does recommend that masks continue to be worn in indoor public transportation areas.

Expedited embarkation procedures refined since the cruise travel restart in July 2021, however, have made time spent in cruise terminals as minimal as possible.

Carnival Cruise Line VeriFLY App
Photo Courtesy: Carnival Cruise Line

Staggered arrival appointments, new digital health and safety passports such as VeriFly, digital facial recognition technology, and other policies have streamlined embarkation dramatically, making it easier for passengers to get started on their cruise vacations, even if they do need to wear a mask in the port terminal.

Should Cruise Passengers Wear Masks?

As cruise lines have adjusted their mask policies in the past few months, masks have continued to be recommended in crowded indoor areas, but are largely optional onboard ships. No cruisers are being required to take masks off, other than for momentary security identification procedures.

In some areas, unvaccinated passengers are still required to wear masks, such as in youth activity areas where guests are not eligible for vaccinations. Masks are also typically required in ships’ medical centers.

Travelers booked on upcoming cruises should stay in contact with their cruise line to remain updated on current protocols and any updates as their sailing date approaches. Changes could be made at the last minute before or during the cruise if needed.

About the Face Mask Mandate

The federal mask mandate was originally issued by the CDC on January 29, 2021. In the past 15 months, it has been extended several times, most recently on April 13, with an expiration of May 3, 2022.

The mandate required that all travelers on any public transportation, including buses, railways, airlines, ferries, taxis, and ride sharing services, were to wear face coverings at all times.

The order also covered all public transportation hubs, such as airports, bus or ferry terminals, train and subway stations, seaports, and U.S. ports of entry, both indoors and outdoors.

Cruise Ship Illness with Mask
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

All cruise lines operating from U.S. ports have been required to comply with the mandate, though only while passengers are moving through the terminal. Once on board a ship, the cruise line’s policies dictate whether or not masks must be worn.

This was done in an attempt to limit the transmission of COVID-19 in areas where many people gather without room to adequately social distance, while still permitting that travel to move forward.

Now, Judge Mizelle has ruled that the order was overreaching beyond the authority of the CDC, and that the agency acted arbitrarily and without proper commenting and input periods before the mandate was enacted.

While challenges to the ruling are possible, various sources have noted that such challenges are unlikely at this time. Should pandemic conditions evolve toward greater severity once more, however, mask mandates and other protective measures could be reinstated.

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