It looks like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will follow through on its promise to allow the Conditional Sailing Order to expire next week.
At a U.S. Senate Hearing on Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Congress the Covid-19 regulations will move from mandatory to voluntary on January 15.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) asked the Dr. Walensky what the cruise industry can expect, citing the enormous lengths they have gone to in order to adhere to Covid-19 protocols.
Senator Murkowski wanted "assurance" that the CDC recognizes the work cruise lines have done to protect passengers, crew members, and the communities their ships visit, is what is necessary to allow the Conditional Sail Order to expire, "I understand the conditional sail order is is set to expire in a few days in recognition that the companies have practices that adhere to or even exceed the guidance in the order."
"I'd like some assurance from you that that they can count on that, that this is clear guidance and messaging to those within the industries and to those who are counting on being able to to have a season this coming summer."
Dr. Walensky confirmed the CSO will not be renewed, "We anticipate that this order will not be renewed and that the cruise ship industries will continue to understand that this is a really safe practice for those industries."
Dr. Walensky pointed out how impressive the cruise lines have been with their dedication to these protocols, "I think the Conditional Sailing Order and the fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding, as you know, the the compliance with the sail order without the order even necessarily needing to be in place, as is a real testimony to how well that has worked and how we've worked collaboratively with the industry."
Senator Murkwoski wanted some insight into the summer, since it greatly affects Alaska cruises. Dr. Walensky was not ready to make any predictions about what to expect in five to six months from now.
Walensky: "What I can't predict is what the summer will bring."
Murkowski: "I understand that, but for right now, you expect this guidance to stay in place."
Walensky: "That's my anticipation."
The Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) began as the No Sail order in March 2020, when the entire cruise industry shutdown due to Covid-19.
Since then, the CDC and cruise lines worked together to craft new health protocols that would keep everyone onboard safe from spreading the disease unchecked.
All the cruise lines operating from the United States have since adopted this framework so that they can safely operate during the pandemic.
The CSO was extended on October 25, 2021 with the understanding it would expire on January 15. Cruise lines had said they intend to follow the CSO regardless of if it's required or not.
Since then, the Omicron variant shot up Covid numbers around the world, including cruise ships. There was concern that Omicron would change the CDC's minds.
Dr. Walensky pointed out the up tick in cases, "just over the last two weeks with Omicron, we've seen a 30 fold increase in cases on ships during this season because of Omicron."
Senator Murkowski pointed out the work cruise lines have put in over the last two years, "in fairness, the industry itself has undertaken extraordinary precautions as one industry, to make sure that people are protected from from this virus."
When the CSO ends on January 15th, it will transition to a voluntary program where the CDC will continue to oversee the industry as it always has in the past.
What does this mean for cruise ships?
The CSO transitioning to a recommendation may or may result in any noticeable changes in the short term.
Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines have already committed to follow the CSO regardless of if it's required or not. Cruise lines first indicated they would follow the CSO following Florida's legal victory against the CDC in summer 2021.
Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Michael Bayley said in July 2021, "We will continue to voluntarily follow all CDC guidelines and recommendations."
Some cruise fans were hoping the end of the CSO would mean a relaxing of certain health protocols, but there's been indication yet that is going to happen. Certainly not while the Omicron variant is driving up case counts and capturing the attention of the world.