The end of U.S. government Covid-19 cruise ship protocols is here.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced the end of its voluntary Covid-19 program. As of July 18, 2022, the program is no longer in effect; rather, the CDC will provide general guidance to help cruise lines continue providing a safe and healthy environment for all passengers and crew members.
The CDC will now take a general approach to providing health and safety guidance to the cruising sector, similar to how it provides guidance to all other travel sectors.
In regards to cruise line protocols, it's important to emphasize that nothing has changed yet.
Most cruise lines protocols still include vaccination and testing requirements; however, the cruise lines now have the freedom to choose their own protocols with the end of the voluntary Covid-19 program.
This new phase of pandemic guidance is a welcome change for the cruise lines, as the CDC will not replace the voluntary program with any other program.
This is a step towards a new normal for the cruise industry, which had been strictly regulated by the CDC since the onset of the pandemic.
Cruise Industry Reaction
Shortly after the CDC made the announcement, the cruise industry had an overall positive reaction to the news.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the association that represents the cruise industry, released a statement fully supporting the CDC's decision to end the program.
The association gave the following statement in response to the change: "The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and its member cruise lines welcome the decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to end the CDC COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships Operating in U.S. Waters in favor of a set of guidelines for public health operations on cruise ships."
The association said it looks forward to reviewing the new guidance details that will be posted on the CDC website in the coming days.
CLIA continued, "This is an important step forward in the CDC aligning the guidelines for cruises with those it has established for other travel, hospitality, and entertainment sectors."
Finally, the association shared, "The sunsetting of the CDC Program, effective 18 July 2022, is a testament to the effectiveness of the industry’s comprehensive and robust protocols. In fact, cruising has become one of the safest forms of travel and among the most successful industries in mitigating the spread and severity of COVID-19, resulting in few passengers or crew becoming seriously ill or requiring hospitalization compared to hospital statistics for landside patients."
Voluntary Program Details
The CDC’s Voluntary Covid-19 was implemented at the expiration of the Conditional Sail Order, which expired in January 2022. During this time, the new omicron variant had been running rampant throughout the U.S. and cruise lines were navigating the spread of a more contagious variant both on land and at sea.
Today’s expiration of the program marks the start of a new era for the cruise lines, in which they can establish their own set of health and safety protocols.
Under the CDC's voluntary Covid-19 program, cruise lines had the option to opt into 3 different programs voluntarily: Not Highly Vaccinated, Highly Vaccinated and Vaccination Standard of Excellence.
Royal Caribbean joined the ‘highly-vaccinated program’, which required 95% of passengers on each sailing to be fully vaccinated. The program also required that 95% of the cruise ship’s crew be fully vaccinated as well. The highly vaccinated program, along with its policies and protocols, went into effect on February 25, 2022.
By adapting the highly vaccinated program, passengers onboard Royal Caribbean’s sailings were no longer required to wear masks onboard. Instead, the cruise lines shifted to masks being optional for passengers.
This was a welcomed change for Royal Caribbean cruisers, as masks were previously required indoors during any period in which passengers were not eating or drinking actively.
The CDC required cruise lines that opted into the program to provide vaccination status for each participating cruise ship. The 95% threshold for vaccination was also required for every single voyage on each participating cruise ship.
Participating ships were also required to document, surveillance and report onboard Covid-19 cases for each sailing to the CDC. Using this data, the CDC established a color-coding system to designate the spread of Covid-19 on each ship, which was published on a public dashboard.
The end of the CDC's voluntary Covid-19 program reflects the travel industry's overall shift towards managing Covid-19 as a new normal.