(2:15 p.m. EDT) -- The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is asking for the input of the public, cruise lines and industry stakeholders on how cruises should be allowed to resume during the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Until September 21, the public has time to comment on
pertaining to all aspects of cruising, through the U.S. Federal Register.
While representing a positive and major step forward -- the CDC is now opening the door for discussions on resuming cruises, as opposed to strictly dealing with crew repatriations – the timeline casts doubt on the ability to resume cruises from the United States in the early fall.
Earlier this month, the CDC had extended its 'No Sail' order for all cruise ships operating within U.S. waters until September 30, 2020. With this new public consultation process open until just nine days prior to the expiry of the No Sail order, it is increasingly unlikely that cruises will start back up on October 1.
Some lines, including Princess Cruises, have already voluntarily cancelled sailings into December.
The relationship between the cruise lines and the CDC has been noticeably strained during the COVID-19 pandemic that started affecting the cruise industry in earnest back in February.
On March 14, one to two days after most cruise lines began voluntarily suspending operations, the CDC issued the first iteration of its No Sail order that was in effect for 30 days initially. One month later, the CDC extended that suspension to July 24 before later revising it again until September 30.
During the past six months, the CDC has primarily been focused on working with the cruise lines as they repatriated crewmembers from ships. The issue of crew repatriations in the entire maritime industry -- not just cruise -- has been a substantial issue for seafarers globally since the pandemic began.
"Cruise ships have faced particular challenges, with much larger numbers of people on board (both seafarers and passengers) compared to cargo ships,"
, or IMO. "They may have thousands of passengers and crew, while even the biggest cargo ships may only have some 20 crew on board."
The IMO notes that several countries have declared seafarers as essential workers during these times, including the Bahamas, Barbados, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, Liberia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Thailand and the United Kingdom. The United States does not yet recognize seafarers, or seafarer crew changes, as essential.
"Most cruise lines stopped sailings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and have since been working to disembark and repatriate their passengers and crew," says the IMO. "But to do this requires collaboration and cooperation between cruise lines, governments and others – which is exactly what IMO has been calling for."
The CDC developed
to help cruise lines achieve cleared status to repatriate crew members. This involved lines agreeing to dozens of rules, regulations and procedures, including cancelling all social activities for crew members, closing crew bars and fitness areas, and essentially confining workers to their cabins in some cases.
The CDC also put stringent rules on repatriating crew through the United States. This included banning the crew from staying in a hotel overnight at any point until their final destination was reached; not using public transportation or entering a public airport terminal and not take commercial flights. The rules meant that most cruise lines repatriated crew members to their home countries by sea, which added months to the time they were on the ships.
Only one cruise line -- Palm Beach-based Bahamas Paradise -- managed to achieve the "Green Status" needed to repatriate crew via commercial means for its one operational ship. The CDC did, however, assist cruise lines in passenger and crew repatriations outside of the regulatory chart developed well into the pandemic.
Both the CDC and cruise lines have said that they have not yet had any substantiate discussions over how cruises can resume safely. This request for information by the CDC is the first major positive step toward making that happen.
In its call for feedback, the CDC is seeking answers to a myriad of questions covering all aspects of the cruise experience.
A few examples of what the CDC is after:
Many of these questions are quite involved and require deep analysis of several different aspects of the cruise vacation.
The CDC is responsible for cruises that either embark/disembark from an American port, or cruises calling on American waters and American ports of call. The only exceptions are vessels that have fewer than 250 combined crew and passengers.
It has no jurisdiction over cruises in other parts of the world, which does leave open the possibility of cruises restarting elsewhere prior to the end of the year.
Anyone can submit a comment for consideration by the CDC. Relevant answers will be displayed unaltered on the Government Regulations website. Answers must be submitted in writing by physical mail, or through the E-Rulemaking Portal. The document for comments isn't easy to find, so a
Following the September 21 deadline for replies, the CDC will likely have to compile these recommendations into a concise document, which will probably have to be formally presented to both Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA); and individual cruise lines operating within U.S. waters. It will then need to be implemented by each individual cruise line.
All of this takes time, though how much time -- and on what timeline -- is currently unknown.
Currently, the CDC's No Sail order only affects vessels with the capacity to carry over 250 people (passengers and crew). It is far more likely that any recommendations resulting from this public consultation will apply to all passenger ships offering overnight cruise passenger service.
Earlier this month, the European Union released its guidelines for the healthy resumption of cruise service in the EU. Lines like AIDA and TUI have used this guidance to plan their resumption of service from Germany.
Cruise Critic will update this article with more information as it becomes available. The Federal Register article issued by the CDC