Cruise ships are no longer required to abide by a series of COVID-19 safety restrictions issued in 2021 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that expired on Jan. 15, allowing cruise lines discretion in applying such protocols.
The CDC has announced the expiration of its Temporary Extension and Modification of Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), a set of mandatory rules for foreign-flagged cruise ships operating in U.S. waters, including strict protocols on COVID-19 vaccination and testing, as well as mask-wearing.
“After the expiration of the Temporary Extension & Modification of the CSO, CDC intends to transition to a voluntary program, in coordination with cruise ship operators and other stakeholders, to assist the cruise ship industry to detect, mitigate, and control the spread of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships,” the CDC said in a statement.
While the CDC made clear that the new program is voluntary, it recommended that cruise lines continue to follow its COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
“Cruise lines are encouraged to continue to follow all CDC public health measures, including reporting, testing, and infection prevention and control,” the CDC stated, noting that it would release the details of its voluntary COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships at a later date.
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, also known as SARS-CoV-2.
A number of cruise ship operators are expected to opt into the discretionary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said in a statement ahead of the CSO expiry that it would continue to apply the protocols on a voluntary basis.
“Furthering our commitment to health and safety, with the expiration of the CDC’s Conditional Sail Order, our three brands have opted into the CDC’s voluntary Program, which provides the cruise industry with a set of operating provisions to protect the health and safety of guests and crew,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.
Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, told “Good Morning America” in a Jan. 15 interview that “of course, we’re going to opt in” to the program, noting that the protocols outlined in the CSO “are working.”
The CDC’s move was hailed by the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group.
“The transition of the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) to a voluntary program … recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry,” the group said in a statement.
Some have criticized the CDC’s decision to shift to a voluntary system. Several congressional Democrats penned a letter to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, urging the agency to maintain the mitigation measures as mandatory.
“While the world battles the highest surge in COVID-19 cases to date, prioritizing and strongly enforcing measures that maximize the safety of all those on board cruise ships is critical,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in the letter (pdf).
The pair wrote that “prematurely” shifting to a voluntary program could allow cruise operators to sidestep public health measures, making “conditions ripe for the continued spread of infections, jeopardizing our efforts against this pandemic, further imperiling passenger and crew safety, and threatening the operations of an industry hard-hit by the pandemic.”
Walensky recently told a Senate health committee that the spread of the highly contagious, but far less virulent Omicron coronavirus variant had led to a thirtyfold increase in cases on ships over the prior two weeks.