In mid-March 2020, the cruise industry in the United States and abroad shut down in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak. The majority of cruise lines have not restarted, with most imposing voluntary limits through the start of summer on sailings from the U.S. -- and in some cases, well beyond.
Yet airlines, hotels and other forms of travel remain open and ready for business, despite numerous associated COVID-19 outbreaks. Why?
The differences come from the way that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has treated cruise lines during the pandemic. The requirements to restart cruises have been hefty, involving processes and regulations that have been almost impossible for the lines to do in a timely manner.
Cruise Critic looks at why the reporting and regulatory requirements for the cruise industry are so vastly different from other forms of travel.
When the pandemic started, cruise lines found themselves on the front lines for highly publicized outbreaks, even as the virus began its worldwide spread through air traffic and international travel. Thousands watched as different ports -- including in some cases, the United States -- turned away ships with positive cases.
Other forms of travel did have some restrictions in those early days, primarily through state-imposed lockdowns and quarantines. Yet those industries were able to get back up and running within weeks.
For cruising, the CDC relied on a No-Sail Order, one that would be extended several times before finally being replaced in late-October with a "Framework for Conditional Sailing" In theory, the order was supposed to allow cruises to slowly restart operations within the United States.
Yet the 40-page document ended up as myriad complex instructions to cruise lines, specifying everything from how passengers behave on cruises, to rules on how they can embark, what they can do when onboard and what happens if any passenger or crew comes down with COVID-19.
The CDC also mandated that cruise lines must perform mock test cruises, with passengers who have not paid for their voyage, in order to test everything from embarkation to bars, lounges and shore excursions, without specifying how or when lines would be allowed to do so.
The CDC's document went beyond the proposed procedures suggested by the industry. A group of experts brought together by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings created a list of 74 different recommendations for the CDC that would allow for a safe and healthy restart of cruise operations, when the time was right.
Currently, the lines say they are trying to comply with the CDC requirements, primarily concentrating on bringing cruise ships back into U.S. ports as the first step in being certified as ready to operate within U.S. waters. Ships are tracked by the CDC on a chart; only when that vessel has achieved "green" status is it eligible to perform functions like crew changes and, eventually, revenue passenger sailings.
On April 1, the CDC issued additional technical guidance that further distances the required test cruises into a future phase, and imposes new guidance for ports and lines to follow. Those technical orders, along with the absence of any sort of test cruises, have caused many lines to seek new homeports outside the United States, with the industry being welcomed to sail from Iceland, the UK, Greece, and some parts of the Caribbean.
The CDC's new technical guidance has prompted the cruise industry's most vocal backlash against the organization, and has reached into the political arena as well, with senators and house representatives calling on the CDC to repeal its guidance on cruise.
Unlike the myriad requirements levied at cruise lines, far less is required of airlines operating within the United States to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A recording provided by the CDC to airport terminals states that passengers are to cover coughs and sneezes; avoid close contact with people who are sick; and wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It also recommends passengers avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and using hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol.
While many terminals have closed food courts and other venues where people might gather before a flight, there's no enforcement or requirement to social distance. Photos of airports during the recent holiday rush showed TSA lines that rivaled those before the pandemic.
"It seems to be a bit imbalanced," says Josh Walker, co-founder and COO at Utah-based Nomi Health, which provides COVID-19 testing services for a number of states and individual locations like Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport and PortMiami. "There's very little guidance from the CDC for airline travel, which is incredibly ubiquitous and has not been able to shut down.
"Yet they've been highly critical and highly tight around cruise lines in particular. We've found, on the airport side of things, there's almost no guidance" by the CDC.
"It's not to be critical of the CDC; they're doing a wonderful job considering all they've had to take on."
Additionally, the CDC had recommended -- but did not require -- the use of masks on all modes of public transportation. The enforcement of masking, and other policies, had been left up to individual airlines to determine.
That changed in January, when U.S. President Joe Biden required masks to be used in airports, onboard airplanes and when inside all federal buildings in the United States.
Every domestic U.S. airline has made masking mandatory in airports and during flight, according to an article published by Forbes in December 2020, but there was a lack of cohesive strategy. Alaska Airlines, for example, required mask usage for any passenger over 2 years old. American Airlines offered a vague notice that "very young children" are exempt, without providing an age bracket.
The same goes for the process of "seat blocking" -- the act of keeping free the middle seat on domestic flights within the United States to better encourage social distancing. Delta had blocked seats on its flights through March 31, 2021.
Two of the nation's largest carriers, American and United, ended the process of blocking seats months ago.
The CDC has not imposed capacity limits or other restrictions on domestic airlines, though on January 12 it did mandate that all internationally arriving air passengers, including U.S. citizens, provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test beginning January 27, 2021.
Still, reports have emerged of even visibly ill passengers being allowed to board flights. The Los Angeles Times reports that a 69-year old passenger on a United Airlines flight collapsed on a December 14, 2020, flight from Orlando to Los Angeles and died as a result of COVID-19 infection that was known to the passenger and his travelling companion pre-flight.
The CDC requires pilots to report deaths or illnesses on interstate flights but admitted to the Times that it does not track these reports. The onus to screen passengers is left to flight attendants, who cannot reasonably police every passenger on a packed jetliner.
The deceased passenger, who was COVID-19 positive prior to flying with United, reportedly filled out a declaration form stating that he was not ill and was fit to travel.
After the Boeing 737-900 made an emergency landing in New Orleans to remove the ill victim, passengers and crew continued on the same aircraft to Los Angeles, without the plane being sanitized or cleaned. Despite the victim's wife telling passengers he had COVID-19, passengers on the flight waited for a week before a coroner's report confirmed the man's COVID-positive diagnosis.
Crew seem to have known differently. Four flight attendants quarantined in Los Angeles for 14 days upon landing.
After landing at LAX at 11:09 p.m. PST, the aircraft reportedly was put back into service first thing the next morning following a standard overnight stay at the airport, departing at 6:45 a.m. for Cancun.
The CDC does not publicly disclose flights with known COVID-19 cases onboard, but the Government of Canada does. Known exposures on domestic and international flights, trains and cruise ships, is available for all to see as part of Canada's COVID-19 strategy.
While Canada's listing does not cover domestic U.S. flights, it does shed a light on transborder flights with cases of COVID-19 -- and the results are numerous.
On January 4, 2021 alone, flights from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, Newark, Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco to Vancouver, Calgary Toronto and Montreal all had at least one passenger or crew onboard who later tested positive for COVID-19.
The current total: more than 4,000 domestic U.S. flights with known cases of COVID-19.
The CDC's guidance to hotel, resort and lodge workers is similar to its directives to the airline industry: Maintain social distancing, wash your hands and wear a mask. It also advises hotel staff to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and credit card terminals.
Yet there's no national requirement to collect information on COVID-19 outbreaks in hotels. In an email to Cruise Critic, a CDC spokesperson stated that any cases of COVID-19, or other health matters, would be reported to state or local health departments. Those health organizations would then be responsible for reporting instances of COVID-19 at hotels and resorts to the CDC.
"We've had a number of conversations at the hotel and resort level around how we can help them create a safe resort experience," Walker said. "Again, there's not a lot of guidance there for many of resorts on how they operate.
Nomi Health is working with a number of hotel brands to develop PRC testing solutions as part of health and safety protocols that go above and beyond mandated CDC guidelines. Like the airlines, individual hoteliers have been largely left to come up with their own safety standards and protocols.
Marriott's "Commitment to Clean" program makes mask wearing mandatory across the hotel conglomerate's 30 individual brands and hotels within North America, the Caribbean, and Latin America. It also specifies the use of electrostatic sprayers to disinfect guest rooms and public areas, and improvements to ventilation systems -- similar to what cruise lines have been proposing since summer 2020. In fact, Marriott even uses EcoLab products that are already supplied to many cruise lines.
Marriott has added social distancing signage in public areas and moved some features onto its Bonvoy app. Guests can check-in using the app, and even open their doors in select properties using their smartphone as part of the company's MobileKey system.
Yet the transitory nature of hotels means that it's tough for a customer to know if their COVID-19 case came from their stay. A guest who comes down with COVID-19 might be long gone by the time they realize they are infected, and while some states have attempted to implement contact tracing, rarely do hotels track which guests or employees that infected person might have been in close contact with.
There is even question over whether hotels are required to notify guests of any COVID-19 outbreak among staff or patrons. In Washington State, the Salish Lodge had an outbreak of 25 cases of COVID-19 in fall 2020, and most patrons only found out when watching the evening news, according to the Seattle Times.
It's not entirely the Lodge's fault: It was following the guidance set forth by Seattle and King County Public Health, which stated its preference to focus on those people with known COVID-19 infections rather than issue broad-scale warnings about individual locations, according to the Seattle Times.
A number of those who tested positive at the Salish Lodge were employees.
With COVID-19 infections rising in the United States and around the world, and many nations either on lockdown or facing tightening travel restrictions, the logistics and optics of conducting cruises from U.S. ports would, at this point in time, seem to be weighed down by considerations outside the CDC.
Given, however, that the airline, hotel, rail and other segments of the travel industry are currently allowed to operate and have been allowed to operate near-continually throughout the pandemic within the United States, it stands out that the cruise industry has not been able to move forward and seems at a standstill with the CDC.
The battle between the CDC and the cruise industry began to heat up in April, with vocal opposition being registered by executives, industry statekholders and U.S. congressional representatives that have included lawsuits against the CDC by the state of Florida and other actions.