The CDC Letter to Cruise Lines: What It Means

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The letter sent out by the CDC yesterday came at the best possible time for the cruise industry. Time has been running out lately for the cruise lines to make a mid-July restart possible, while cruise lines will have been in the planning stages for ships to move to other areas in the world.

During an earnings call yesterday, Michael Bayley, the President for Royal Caribbean, said the changes brought on by the CDC make a mid-July start update not only possible but likely. It also means that cruise lines have two options to sail from July onwards. With a 95% vaccinated guest mandate, and without that mandate.

The CDC Letter Explained

As we wrote yesterday, there are five main points that the CDC has brought forward, which have been discussed in recent bi-weekly meetings with the various cruise lines. Some significant breakthroughs were made in what was dubbed ‘constructive talks’ between the CDC and the cruise line executives.

While most of the four-page letter sent by the CDC has to do with the CDC changing the language of the phase 2A agreement in the Conditional Sailing Order, below are the five main points:

  • Ships can bypass the required simulated test voyages carrying volunteers and jump to sailings with paying passengers if 98% of crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.

This is a factor that many of the cruise lines have argued for as vaccinations become more and more prevalent. However, it does not mean that guests who have not been vaccinated are excluded from cruising. Michael Bayley, the Royal Caribbean President, explained this yesterday:

There will be two pathways. One pathway for vaccinated crew and largely vaccinated guests that meet the threshold that the CDC has defined. And that would mean that there wouldn’t be a requirement for a simulated voyage. And then, for ships that wouldn’t meet that threshold for whatever reason, there would be a different timeline and a different set of protocols and requirements. So fundamentally, there are two pathways.

Also, the 95% / 5% threshold for guests to be vaccinated onboard is there to accommodate those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical complications and for children under 18 for whom the vaccine has not been approved yet. However, expect kids and adults to need a negative PCR test still to be allowed on board.

  • CDC will review and respond to applications from cruise lines for simulated voyages within five days, a review previously expected to take 60 days.

Even if cruise lines should choose not to make a vaccine mandatory, the timeline is significantly less than the previous. This means then that cruise lines that choose to go this route will still be able to sail mid-July, as long as they comply with the other regulations the agency has asked for.

Frank Del Rio, the Norwegian Cruise Line President, and CEO, who only recently canceled all voyages from the US until well into fall in some instances, said he is optimistic about the letter from the CDC in a first reaction Thursday evening:

“We are hopeful that the CDC’s most recent letter is a harbinger of more good things to come,”

  • CDC will update its testing and quarantine requirements for passengers and crew

On sailings with paying passengers and to align with the CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated people, for the first passenger voyages out of the US, fully vaccinated people can now take a rapid test upon embarkation instead of a polymerase-chain-reaction test, the CDC said.

  • CDC has clarified that cruise ship operators may enter into a “multi-port agreement” rather than a single port agreement as long as all port and local authorities sign the agreement.

This point was a big call as it would have meant the cruise lines would have had to make agreements with every single port the ships call in, even foreign ports, for medical and quarantine purposes. However, the current change gives cruise lines more free reign in this; if a port does not have the medical capacity to deal with any cases or an outbreak onboard, but one nearby does, the agreement with that port will suffice.

  • The CDC has clarified guidance on quarantine guidelines for passengers who may be exposed to or contract COVID-19. For example, local passengers may drive home, and passengers who have traveled by air to cruise may quarantine in a hotel.

This point in the letter is there in case of a case of COVID on board the ship. It now means that those that may have been in contact or nearby that case do not have to quarantine on board the ship. Something many will remember from March last year as being the worst choice of all. This point is in the interest of everyone then.

Docked Miami Cruise Ships
Photo Credit: EQRoy /

Reactions So Far Positive

As more has become apparent on the letter sent by the CDC, the overall feeling has been more and more positive. Not only does it give the cruise lines a straightforward way for those guests that have been vaccinated, but it also provides guests that have not or cannot be vaccinated a possibility to cruise this summer.

Also Read: World’s Second Busiest Cruise Port Reacts to CDC Adjustments

While most cruise lines have been clear in their desire for cruises with vaccinated guests only, a cruise line like Carnival Cruise Line will now be seriously considering the second pathway. The line has so far been adamant in not requiring guests vaccinations. The letter now provides the line a clear way to proceed to cruise, possibly taking the lessons learned from Costa and AIDA in Europe with them.

What the consequences will be for cruises elsewhere in the world that Royal Caribbean and Norwegian in particular have been planning remains unclear, but expect things to remain as they are for the time being.

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