The situation worldwide in October of 2020, compared to the situation today, brings some considerable differences in how the pandemic is handled worldwide. With the extension from the CDC of the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), one would expect the order to feature massive changes.
The original order did not count in the fact that cruise ships would be operating only with vaccinated guests and crew. The entire manner in which cruise ships operate today compared to March 2020 is entirely different. So has the CDC made the necessary changes to the CSO to justify an extension or is the ‘new’ CSO just more of the same?
What Has Changed Between 2020 and 2021?
The CDC released the Conditional Sailing Order one year ago to give cruise ship operators a pathway to resume operations. At the time, the technical framework was received with mixed feelings.
Cruise ships operators were, for example, required to break off a voyage, cancel future trips, and return to port immediately should COVID-19 be found onboard. Of course, as it stands today, the industry and the CDC both understand that this requirement is entirely outdated, and it has now been removed from the CSO.
There are many more changes that the CDC has incorporated. A lot of that has been done over the last 12 months. During the first six months of this year, the CDC included changes almost weekly, based on what the science said at the time.
“Over time, with our online resources, such as our technical instructions and our technical instruction web pages, and our COVID-19 operations manuals, we’ve made adjustments based on the science to our recommendations and requirements,” Capt. Aimee Treffiletti, who leads the CDC’s maritime unit, told USA Today.
With the CDC’s statement that they feel the pandemic has not passed or lessened to the point that the CSO can be let go, a new document with updated requirements only makes sense.
What Does the New CSO Say
Perhaps the most significant change in the new document is that it pertains only to foreign-flagged vessels. Foreign flagged cruise ships operate internationally while homeporting for a large part in the United States.
With the relative ease with which new variants could be introduced onboard ships and brought to the US, the CDC focusses more on internationally operating vessels than US-flagged ships that operate only in the US makes sense.
Dave Daigle, CDC spokesperson: “Foreign-flagged ships typically operate on international itineraries far from US shores, outbreaks are more likely to require emergency evacuations while at sea which can burden US Coast Guard and other emergency medical response resources.” Additionally, stopping in foreign ports increases the risk of introducing COVID-19 variants on board.”
Now, the change to foreign-flagged ships is not the only significant change. There are several more changes that many will be happy to see incorporated in the new CSO:
- Removed requirement to limit voyage to 7 days: The previous CSO had a condition that did not allow cruise lines to operate cruises longer than seven days. This requirement had already been changed but has now also been removed entirely. Cruises can once again be of any length.
- Removed requirement for a monitored observation period of passengers before embarking: With vaccination mandates and testing requirements before sailing, this measure has become obsolete and has been removed.
- Removed previous requirement that cruise ship operator must immediately end voyage, cancel future voyages, and return to port if COVID-19 identified onboard: This requirement has now been amended, the CSO now states that a cruise may be ended and further action taken if a ship meets the “red ship criteria.”
- Conditional Sailing Certificate: Cruise ships that have been operating restricted passenger voyages can now transition to trips with less than 95% vaccinated passengers by conducting a modified simulated voyage procedure instead of a full simulated voyage.
- Ships repositioning to the US from non-U.S. jurisdictions: Cruise ships that have been conducting passenger operations in non-U.S. jurisdictions and intend to operate in US waters with less than 95% vaccinated passengers after repositioning to the U S. can now apply for a COVID- 19 Conditional Sailing Certificate after conducting modified simulated voyage procedures instead of having to perform a full simulated voyage.
It is essential to look at why the CDC has made the choice to extend the Conditional Sailing Order until January 15, 2022, a choice that has been made in cooperation with the various cruise companies.
So far, 47 cruise ships are operating in US-waters regularly. From June 26, when Celebrity Cruises became the first cruise line to start operations in the United States, until October 21, 1,359 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported to CDC by cruise ships.
Some noteworthy occurrences mentioned by the CDC include one ship, which the CDC calls “Cruise Ship E,” which reported 105 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among passengers and crew on a total of four consecutive voyages. The vessel had a vaccination rate of 100% of crew and an average of 97% of passengers fully vaccinated.
Between August 21 and September 7, “Cruise Ship F” reported a total of 112 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among passengers and crew on four consecutive voyages despite the ships having a 100% vaccination rate.
So while the CDC has been criticized for extending the CSO, there certainly is a basis for the order. Capt. Aimee Treffiletti: “We’ve never expected that there would be zero risk of transmission. But one thing that’s really important is that we haven’t seen medical resources overwhelmed on ships – we haven’t seen high rates of hospitalizations or deaths that we saw early on in the pandemic related to cruise ships. So, I think we can consider that a success.“
The CSO and the efforts from the cruise lines have been successful in returning ships to sea; unfortunately, the time has not come yet to say goodbye to the protocols and guidelines.
At the very least, the CDC is willing to work with the cruise industry in making the necessary changes to the order, as we can see with the current progress. Something that was lacking a year ago when the original CSO was released, and perhaps, this is the most significant change of the new CSO.