The CDC's letter to cruise lines clarifying the path for the resumption of sailing from U.S. ports came as welcome news to cruise lovers who have been waiting for their favorite industry to resume.
The guidance, delivered April 28, noted the agency, which has been debating the cruise line regarding restart plans for months, is committed to having sailing resume by mid-July. But how exactly that will play out with each cruise line is still to be determined. While cruise lines are expressing hope with the new information, nothing definitive has been.
Here are some questions that we still have after reading through the new CDC guidance:
The CDC had been talking about test cruises since October 2020. Are those still required?
Test cruises, or simulated voyages in CDC-speak, will be required for cruise lines that decide not to impose vaccination requirements. The big news here is that the lines will receive approval to do the test cruises within five business days of submitting a proposal -- and not two months, as the Conditional Sailing Order originally suggested.
If a cruise line decides to have a vaccine requirement, will it be able to sail faster?
Yes, probably. The CDC guidance says a cruise line will be able to skip the test voyage requirement if they commit to 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers being fully vaccinated before embarkation. This is good news for a line such as Norwegian Cruise Line, which put a letter before the CDC noting it would resume sailing with fully vaccinated ships. Lines such as Carnival, where executives have said publicly they would prefer not to have a vaccine requirement, might have to go through the test cruise process.
Cruise Critic is keeping a running tally of lines that have announced vaccine requirements.
My kids can't get vaccinated. Are they excluded from the 95 percent vaccine requirement?
Nope. If a cruise line decides that it is going to sail with children under 16 who can't get vaccinated, it will either have to go through the test cruise process or limit the number of kids onboard to 5 percent. Vaccines are currently in trials for children between 12 and 15 years of age, with health officials saying that the age group might be able to get inoculations by early June. Having that age group vaccinated would be helpful in allowing more families with younger children onboard.
What if my ship has a vaccine requirement and I can't get the vaccine because of a medical condition?
The CDC is saying that a ship that skips the test cruise process can have 5 percent of its passengers that are unvaccinated. How the lines choose to interpret who that 5 percent is has yet to be determined. It does provide leeway for a limited number of unvaccinated children or people who cannot get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.
I want to sail out of Florida on a vaccinated ship, but Governor Ron DeSantis has banned businesses from setting vaccine requirements. What does that mean for the cruise lines?
The CDC has made it clear: Preference is being given to cruise lines that decide to require vaccines. Given that many cruise lines are already requiring vaccines to sail from other countries, the order from DeSantis sets up the state of Florida to hamper the cruise lines from getting back in the water as fast as they could. We'll see if a lawsuit results from it, whether the Florida order is modified or whether the lines simply decide to start out of different states that aren't against vaccine requirements.
What if I'm exposed to COVID-19 onboard? Will I be kept prisoner on the ship for 14 days?
The updated guidelines say that people who are exposed to COVID-19 on the ship will be able to follow the same quarantine guidelines that dictate travel anywhere else in the U.S. People who have driven to the port can use personal vehicles to return safely to their own residences, as long as they avoid overnight stays en route. Any quarantine for people who have to fly can be completed in a hotel, rather than special housing. Health departments at the final destination must be notified, and travelers who are exposed must be advised to complete isolation or quarantine at home.
Will I still need to get a COVID-19 test to board if I'm vaccinated?
The new guidance is more in line with what companies are doing on land. Cruise passengers who are vaccinated can board with proof of a negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test, rather than a lab-based PCR test.
I just booked to go on a cruise ship leaving from The Bahamas**! Is it going to be canceled, now that cruises in the U.S. can resume?
Not likely. During the time period when guidance from the CDC seemed stalled, many cruise lines developed relationships with new homeports in the Caribbean and Europe, so they could be guaranteed at least some kind of 2021 season. The lines have generally received positive feedback from a bookings perspective on those cruises, and in some cases have found new nationalities eager to cruise (as Royal Caribbean discovered when it put ships in Singapore and Israel).
It's also important to keep in mind that for the most part, the ships relocating to international homeports are generally the smaller ones in the fleet. A notable exception is Norwegian, which has committed Norwegian Joy to Jamaica, and Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Getaway to Barcelona and Rome, respectively. The international seasons, too, are limited in many cases to a few months.
Do we know yet if itineraries from U.S. homeports will be the same as the ones we saw in 2019?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced cruise lines to be creative with their itineraries, as different countries recover from the pandemic and vaccinate their population at various speeds. Some ports might not accept cruise ships in summer 2021, while others might welcome vaccinated cruisers only. It's probably likely that cruises in the beginning will make heavy use of their private islands in The Bahamas and the Caribbean, where they can control the environment. Bottom line: Until the cruise lines announce their specific restarts, this is still up in the air.
What about Alaska? I know those Inside Passage towns are suffering. Can we cruise there this summer?
Alaska's cruise industry and the businesses that rely upon it have suffered two problems in 2021. The first has been the lack of CDC guidance, which is now underway. The second involves the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires ships with foreign flags to stop in a foreign port. On Alaska itineraries, the foreign port is generally in Canada, which has banned cruise ships until February 2022. For cruise ships to sail, a waiver to the PVSA would be required -- a task that is not impossible but daunting. Royal Caribbean Group President and CEO Richard Fain said his company was still working to salvage part of the summer 2021 Alaska season, so we'll just have to stay tuned.
What about masks and social distancing? Will capacity be limited on the ship? Can I take shore excursions on my own? When will I know all these details?
In its letter, the CDC seemed to be saying that it will apply the similar guidelines to cruise as elsewhere. So at least in summer 2021, you should expect some measure of masking while indoors and in public places, as well as capacity limits. Whether you can roam a port freely on your own will depend on the rules of the local country.
But as we've been reminded throughout the pandemic, science changes all the time. What we are doing at the end of April could be different by mid-July. Our advice, for now: Take heart in the fact that movement is happening, and that the CDC has committed publicly to cruising resuming in July -- and stay tuned to our Cruise Critic news for the latest.