(Updated 3:01 p.m. EDT) -- After nearly eight months, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has lifted the No-Sail Order that has restricted all cruise travel to and from the United States, technically allowing the industry to restart operations November 1.
The order, originally issued by the CDC on March 14 and extended twice since then, was overwritten in a Friday filing released by the agency.
The filing is called a "framework for conditional sailing" and outlines the testing process that the cruise lines must go through to resume operations safely. The first phase calls for testing and safeguards for crew members, followed by "simulated voyages" to make sure that cruise lines can mitigate the risk of COVID-19.
After that, the agency will allow a "phased return" to cruise passenger voyages.
"This framework provides a pathway to resume safe and responsible sailing. It will mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and prevent passengers and crew from seeding outbreaks at ports and in the communities where they live," CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said.
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"CDC and the cruise industry have a shared goal to protect crew, passengers and communities and will continue to work together to ensure that all necessary public health procedures are in place before cruise ships begin sailing with passengers."
The CDC's new guidance will be in effect for cruises to and from U.S. ports of call until November 1, 2021.
What Does the Framework for Conditional Sailing Mean?
As part of the CDC's framework for conditional sailing, lines must demonstrate adherence to testing, quarantine and isolation, and social distancing requirements to protect crew members while they build the laboratory capacity needed to test crew and future passengers.
Much like Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain had suggested, the CDC will first want operators to conduct simulated (mock) voyages with volunteers playing the role of passengers to test the line's ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk.
Once operations are approved, passengers and crew will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing at both embarkation and disembarkation.
The CDC has also indicated it will help cruise lines establish a laboratory team dedicated to the industry that will provide information and oversight for COVID-19 testing. It will also aid in updating its color-coding system to indicate vessel status; update technical instructions as needed; and update its necessary forms to ensure COVID-19 data collection for passengers.
Complying with this Framework for Conditional Sailing will be the first step in a staggered resumption of cruise operations. Voyages are initially restricted to one week or less in duration.
How Soon Can Cruises Resume?
The phased approach is what North American cruise lines were advocating all along.
All cruise lines have suspended their North American operations until at least December 1, while many operators have pushed their restart dates well into 2021. The Cruise Line Industry Association has imposed a voluntary ban on cruising through October. 31.
Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are among those to have suspended till December 1. Executives have previously given timelines ranging from 30 to 60 days to bring a ship from layup to the point where it is ready for operational service again.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has already stated its intention to resume operations December 18, sailing two-night voyages from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Freeport, Bahamas, on Grand Classica.
While the No-Sail Order was in effect, cruise lines endeavored to find new ways to keep passengers healthy onboard and create protocols in case of outbreaks. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings teamed with Royal Caribbean Group to create an industry-wide Healthy Sail Panel, chaired by former Utah Governor and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The panel concluded a safe return to cruise was possible, delivering a 65-plus-page report to the CDC outlining a total of 74 action points that lines would undertake to safely resume cruising.
During this time, limited sailings have resumed in Europe aboard AIDA, Costa, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and TUI following guidance from the European Union's Healthy Gateways panel. While some lines have suspended sailings again because of recent COVID-19 spikes and new lockdowns in Europe, the Europaen lines have shown that cruises can be completed safely, thanks to robost new protocols.
Those recommendations were released to cruise operators by the EU on June 30.
Many lines, including Royal Caribbean, stated that test cruises with company employees only would be the first to set sail in order to fully implement and tweak, if necessary, health and safety protocols.
While no lines have announced exact restart plans as of this writing, most probably will only do so with a handful of ships initially, leading to more cancellations going into 2021 as the industry employs a staggered approach to the restart of cruise operations.
During Royal Caribbean's third quarter earnings call on Thursday, chairman and CEO Richard Fain stressed that any return to service would be a measured one, with short sailings aboard a handful of ships.
"This whole concept of the trial voyages is really quite important," Fain told investors. "We're not just suddenly coming back. It's going to take a while to organize those voyages and we'll have an opportunity to see those protocols in action."
"Then, only on a ship or two at first, we expect to begin sailing again. They will be short cruises with limited destinations and controlled shore excursions."
CDC Still Recommends Americans Avoid All Cruise Travel
The CDC still has one additional tool to deter would-be cruise passengers, issuing guidance that recommends American travelers avoid all ocean and river cruises worldwide and slapping cruise travel with a "Level 3 Travel Health" Notice.
While the order was issued March 17, a recent update of the CDC's page calls into question the CDC's willingness to fully endorse cruise within the United States.
"CDC typically posts travel health notices for countries and other international destinations, not transportation, such as ships, airplanes, or trains," notes the Level 3 Travel Warning for cruise ships. "Because of the unprecedented nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 on cruise ships, the U.S. government is advising U.S. travelers to defer all cruise travel."
With the exception of a handful of sailings that have resumed in Europe and elsewhere, the majority of cruise operations have been stopped since March.
The CDC's guidance does not apply to citizens outside the United States. Currently, numerous other countries, including Canada, Mexico and much of Europe, have Level 3 warnings.
The CDC's warning comes as domestic coronavirus cases within the United States are on the rise. As of October 30, there were over three million active cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., along with over 234,000 deaths.
Cases have also increased in Europe in recent weeks. New lockdown measures in France and Germany have caused AIDA to suspend its planned November voyages, and Costa has restructured its Italian itineraries.
The agency had not issued any similar guidance for domestic or international air travel within the United States, nor has it issued warnings for hotels, theme parks or other crowded events that have since resumed.
The next step for the industry is to slowly ramp up operations again. This could require redeploying ships, changing itineraries, or introducing new health and safety requirements depending on the state of the global health pandemic.
The continued guidance by the CDC urging Americans to avoid all cruise travel also poses problems from an insurance perspective: Most policies will not cover travel to a place where a warning against all travel has been issued.
However, major port gateway cities like Miami have campaigned strongly for the cruise industry after a report by the Federal Maritime Commission highlighted the devastating economic damage that would result from a shutdown of all cruise operations.
On Thursday, Transport Canada extended its own cruise ban for vessels carrying over 100 persons from entering Canadian waters; and for vessels carrying over 12 persons for Canada's Arctic waters. That order is now set to expire on the evening of February 28, 2021. And while no cruises are sailing to Canadian ports during that time, the signal it sends to the industry is one of caution that Canadian ports may be some time from being ready to accept the cruise industry back.