It has been a week since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped the requirement for international travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test before flying into the United States, yet no progress has yet been made on a similar stricture being dropped for cruise travelers.
How is cruise travel different, and what options may be available to ease testing requirements for cruise travelers? The CDC has stated that the situation is being reevaluated and changes may soon be forthcoming.
Cruise Travel Is Not Air Travel
In a statement provided to Cruise Hive, the CDC discussed the dramatic differences between cruise travel and air travel, as well as other forms of recreational travel and popular destinations.
“Unlike airplanes and other travel settings, cruise ships are congregate residential settings with high risk of secondary transmission of COVID-19 among passengers and crew,” the statement reads. “Traveling on a cruise ship involves thousands of people living for multiple days (or months for crew) within the same setting, eating, sleeping, and participating in activities together in one location.”
This is certainly true. Travelers are indeed present on a cruise ship for a number of days (or months, in the case of extraordinary world cruises), interacting with one another more frequently and for longer periods than in a more limited setting such as airlines, hotels, resorts, theme parks, sporting events, music concerts, etc.
Yet, the statement fails to recognize that cruise ships are also more easily controlled environments, able to quickly isolate and track passengers if symptoms of illness appear, and quickly able to react with enhanced cleaning protocols, activity changes, and other responses as needed.
This is not the case with air travel or other settings, where travelers may be in contact for just a few highly communicable hours, but then move on to far-ranging destinations or much broader activities, where diseases can be spread to much wider communities.
The CDC’s own guidance indicates that exposure to COVID-19 droplets for just a few minutes may result in infection. In this case, any event or activity where guests may be in close quarters for more than a few minutes could be dangerous, not just “congregate residential settings.”
Reacting to Possible Outbreaks a Reason to Continue Testing
The CDC does highlight that a cruise ship’s medical facilities may be unable to cope with an extreme situation.
“Outbreaks on cruise ships can potentially overwhelm onboard medical and public health resources, and it may be difficult for passengers with severe illness to be transported to a shoreside medical facility,” the statement continued.
Because of this, “testing before cruise travel helps to identify passengers who have COVID-19 and prevent those passengers from boarding and infecting others.”
It is true that cruise ship medical facilities are smaller and more limited than hospitals and clinics on land, especially for very severe medical emergencies.
It must be noted, however, that despite the requirement for most, if not all, passengers to be fully vaccinated and for everyone to test negative before setting sail, these measures do not prevent outbreaks aboard cruise ships.
At the time of this writing, of the 84 cruise ships being monitored by the CDC, 77 of those vessels are labeled as “orange” status, indicating a COVID-19 outbreak threshold that warrants CDC investigation.
Cases can and do occur on cruise ships, despite the strict measures in place, and there is no way to completely “identify passengers who have COVID-19 and prevent those passengers from boarding and infecting others.”
Yet, since the phased restart of cruise travel in July 2021, there have been no critical emergency situations where any ship has been overwhelmed with the need to evacuate guests due to a crippling outbreak of COVID-19.
Even where higher numbers of cases have been reported on vessels, the cruise line’s emergency measures, including contact tracing, isolation measures, and quarantine, have proven effective, and most passengers who do test positive have been either asymptomatic or experienced only very mild symptoms of discomfort.
Possible Changes Coming
Fortunately, the CDC has also indicated that it is evaluating the situation, which may lead to welcome changes for cruise travelers.
“CDC continues to evaluate the latest science and state of the pandemic and is currently reassessing the testing requirement for cruise ships,” the statement concludes. “CDC remains dedicated to working with the cruise industry to minimize the spread COVID-19, providing a safer and healthier travel environment for passengers and crew.”
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is supportive of the easing of the air travel testing requirement, which permits travelers to more easily reach U.S. cruise homeports, and hopes that similar easing may be forthcoming for cruise travel as well.
“As the CDC monitors the improving health landscape and works with airlines to support a smooth transition with the lifting of the pre-arrival testing requirement, we believe a review of pre-embarkation testing requirements for cruise travelers is also in order,” a statement from CLIA reads.
Of all the passenger cruise ports in the world, the top three busiest are all in the United States – Port of Miami, Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades. The ports of Galveston and New York are also listed in the top 20 busiest passenger cruise ports in the world.
Cruise travelers are also hopeful that the testing requirements may soon be reevaluated. While there is no universal agreement, many passengers are optimistic about easing restrictions.
A possible option is for testing requirements to be maintained for unvaccinated passengers, or those who are not “up to date” on COVID-19 vaccines with the appropriate booster shots.
Guests who are vaccinated might then be able to forgo the pre-cruise testing, particularly since the approved vaccines have proven effective at minimizing symptoms and severity of the illness, preventing more severe complications that would be difficult to deal with onboard a cruise ship.
No cruise lines have yet indicated that this type of option may be implemented, but it could be a reasonable way to begin easing testing requirements.
Cruise Hive will continue to keep you updated on cruise testing protocols, and recommends that all booked passengers stay in close contact with their cruise line or travel agent about guidelines for their individual sailings, as requirements may change on short notice.