What is the CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships?

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The CDC released its new guidelines for COVID-19 prevention onboard cruise ships yesterday, and immediately these received strong criticism from industry insiders such as the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Cruise lines do have the choice to voluntarily opt-in to the new measures introduced by the CDC; if they decide to do so, they must follow all criteria set out. 

Both Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line announced last month they would be opting-in to the new measures, yet the protocols will be questioned in the head offices of those cruise companies. Especially as CLIA called them “potentially unworkable in practice.” We look at why CLIA thinks the CDC has taken these measures too far and what it would mean for the cruise companies. 

CDC Releases Voluntary COVID-19 Program

At the end of last year, the CDC announced the end of the Conditional Sailing Order and a transition to a voluntary program to prevent COVID–19 onboard cruise ships. The agency released the details for this voluntary program yesterday. As could have been expected, the new protocols are overly complex, with criticism from CLIA and industry insiders as a result.

Photo Credit: Brenda Rocha – Blossom / Shutterstock.com

The protocols at this moment are valid through March 18, at which point there will be a re-evaluation based on the scientific data points available at that time. The following protocols have seen significant changes or are essential to the operation of the ship and guest experience: 

Vaccination Status of the Ship

Instead of a fully vaccinated ship or a not fully vaccinated ship, the CDC has implemented an entirely new protocol here. These are:

  • Not Highly Vaccinated: ships with less than 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated.
  • Highly Vaccinated: ships with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated, but with less than 95% of passengers and 95% of the crew who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Vaccination Standard of Excellence: ships with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines. Up to date means guests have all received all recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters when eligible.

For these three vaccination classifications, the agency has implemented different rules for each. For example, mask policies and quarantine periods differ significantly between the highly vaccinated and the standard of excellence classification. The cruise lines will need to decide which class they would like to sail under and comply for each subsequent voyage. 

This policy, at face value, means guests could be denied boarding based on their vaccination status if the vessel is designated as Standard of Excellence. 

Mask Protocols Relating to Vaccination Status 

As mentioned above, whether or not masks are needed onboard depends on the vaccination status of the ship. Ships operating under the Standards of Excellence will not need to require masks. For other classes, masks are mandatory for inside and crowded areas outside the vessel. 

Norwegian Cruise Line Logo
Photo Credit: Matt Bannister / Shutterstock.com

Recently, Norwegian Cruise Line relaxed its mask mandate. The cruise line announced it would not require guests to wear a mask anywhere onboard the ships. However, all Norwegian Cruise Line ships will need to sail under the Standards of Excellence to make this possible.

This means that at least 95% of the guests will need to be fully up to date with all vaccinations and boosters; in other words, making booster shots all but mandatory for sailing onboard.

Vessel Color Code Classification

An area that has received its fair share of critique before and which will likely not let up now, the color-coding system designates ships by the number of COVID cases onboard. 

Green means no cases have been detected. Yellow means there are cases, but they are within the threshold for investigation. Orange represents the ship has COVID cases onboard, and these meet the threshold for investigation. Red means the vessel is at or above the CDC investigation threshold for passenger and crew COVID-19 cases.

Lastly, Grey means the ship has not opted into the CDC’s voluntary guidelines. The issue is not so much with the color-coding itself. But instead, the number of cases needed to trigger an orange or red status. 

Color Status Definitions
Color Status Definitions

The CDC’s investigation threshold is at 0.30% of passengers and/or crew onboard. If 2,000 passengers are on board, it will take six cases during the previous seven days to meet CDC’s investigation threshold.

This includes cases that have occurred within five days of disembarkation if state or local health departments notified the CDC. If passengers became infected in the terminal after their cruise because of someone that handled luggage ashore, that infection could still be counted towards the ship’s total numbers. 

Onboard Testing & Quarantine

Pre-cruise testing remains the same for both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests. Guests who have not been fully vaccinated should show a negative NAAT test taken no more than three days before boarding.

Fully vaccinated guests can show a home test or a negative test from a test center taken no more than two days before sailing. Fully vaccinated guests can also be tested at the terminal.

Onboard COVID-19 Testing for Symptomatic Travelers (Crew and Passengers) and Testing and Quarantine of Close Contacts
Onboard COVID-19 Testing for Symptomatic Travelers (Crew and Passengers) and Testing and Quarantine of Close Contacts

This new regulation means Carnival Cruise Line’s latest protocols for recovered guests could be dead in the water. The cruise line recently announced that guests who have been fully recovered within the last 30 days do not need to be tested before sailing. The CDC sets up no protocol to make this possible under the new program. 

Should you be tested positive onboard the ship, you will need to go into quarantine. How long this quarantine will take depends entirely on the class the vessel is sailing under. 

For ships sailing under the Not Highly Vaccinated and Highly Vaccinated classes, guests who test positive and close contacts must be in quarantine for ten days or until they disembark the vessel. 

For ships sailing under the Standards of Excellence, this period goes down to 5 days if the infected guests and close contacts are symptom-free. However, for days 6-10, they will need to wear a mask at all times, and they can only eat their meals inside their cabins. 


It remains to be seen whether or not the cruise lines will be willing to conform to these measures. As CLIA said in its statement yesterday: “The CDC’s guidance for multitiered cruises is counterproductive to consumers, creating market confusion between the various tiers, and potentially unworkable in practice.”

The CDC is actively telling cruise lines to track the vaccination status, including boosters, vaccination dates, and vaccination type, before they will be allowed to sail under the Standards of Excellence class. Not doing so will result in telling guests to conform to strict rules and regulations that have already been stopped entirely in multiple countries around the world. 

In effect, the CDC is forcing cruise lines to choose to continue building and working on their own policies, which have been proven highly successful, instead of complying with protocols that are outlandish at best. 

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