The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention kept Royal Caribbean (RCL) – Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) – Get Carnival Corporation Report, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) – Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report and every other cruise line from sailing from ports in the U.S. from March 2020 through July 2021.
And when the federal agency lifted the ban, it severely restricted the industry, limiting capacity on ships, requiring masks, mandating vaccinations for anyone ages 12 and over, and insisting on precruise testing and monitoring crew positive tests.
While Americans filled arenas for concerts and sporting events, theme parks operated without any restrictions, and pretty much every business returned to normal, the CDC kept its thumb on the cruise industry,
Over the past few months that program became voluntary and masks went away while other restrictions eased. But all the major cruise lines that sailed from the U.S. opted into the CDC program.
Now, abruptly, the CDC has dropped its voluntary program and has stopped regulating or tracking covid on cruise ships.
Why Did the CDC Drop Covid Rules?
This decision seems shocking only because the CDC, at least during the period where the cruise industry was shut down from U.S. ports, seemed to have an adversarial relationship with the companies it regulated. That appears to no longer be the case as the federal agency has shown:
As of July 18, 2022, CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships is no longer in effect. CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for passengers, crew and communities going forward.
Under the voluntary program, the CDC had been tracking covid levels on ships, assigning color levels based on positive tests and exposures. Before the tracking system was removed, basically every ship in the program was at the “orange” level, which in theory triggered a CDC investigation.
On a practical level, the CDC had been tracking serious illness and death and the numbers were very encouraging.
Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley shared some numbers the CDC had given to him, during his remarks to passengers on the 2022 President’s Cruise, Royal Caribbean Blog first reported.
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Bayley noted that the CDC shared some information with him about the “millions” of people who have sailed from U.S. ports over the past 12 months.
“And the number of people who died from COVID who’d sailed on ships over the past year was two,” Royal Caribbean Blog reported. “Two is terrible. But against the context of everything we’ve seen, [that’s] truly been a remarkable success.”
Essentially, while the CDC set parameters, the cruise lines have been policing themselves for months. That has worked to keep covid under control. People still get covid, as do crew members, but only two people have died, and very few have gotten seriously ill.
The CDC may not be directly saying that it’s done all it can, but the cruise lines clearly have taken reasonable precautions, and given the state of covid in the U.S., that’s all that anyone can reasonably expect.
What Does the CDC Decision Mean for Covid Rules?
Many cruise fans and potential passengers may expect that this CDC decision means that vaccine requirements and precruise testing may soon go away.
That’s likely only partly true because Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, and the rest of the industry must also be protective of optics — they want the easiest, most inclusive rules, but they also want customers to feel safe.
That’s why precruise testing is likely to go away but the vaccination requirement for all passengers ages 12 and over will remain. Bayley said during the President’s Cruise that testing would “be around for another couple of months.”
That was about three weeks ago (June 28) and the CDC ruling suggests that the testing requirement could change in August, but almost certainly will by September. That’s because testing two days before is at best imperfect and it may not have done much to stop covid from spreading.
Vaccines, however, have clearly helped limit the number of severe cases onboard, and showing vaccination cards is a much smaller ask of passengers than requiring them to get tested no more than two days before their cruises.
“The no vaccine question is is a huge question that none of us know the answer to,” Bayley said. “I’m skeptical that’s going to change in the real short term. Many and most of the destinations that we visit require a high degree of vaccination, and they expect our crew to be vaccinated.”
Some destinations may also require testing, so no change in policy is likely to be absolute, but the CDC’s decision does seem to pave the way for the cruise lines to mostly drop the testing requirement.