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(5:10 p.m. EDT) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has replaced its "No-Sail" order that has prohibited the operation of cruise vessels within American waters since March, and introduced what the organization calls a "Framework for Resuming Safe and Responsible Cruise Passenger Operations".
The new measures will allow for a limited restart of cruise operations within the United States; something cruise lines have been advocating for since the summer. These will first take place in the form of test voyages in order to practice and approve health and safety protocols before the resumption of voyages for paying passengers.
Sailings will not resume overnight, however. There are a plethora of steps the CDC wants cruise operators to go through before actual voyages can resume. Keep in mind: this is not a full-blown restart. There will be more cancellations and itinerary changes, well into 2021.
Here's a look at what the CDC is requesting of cruise operators, at least through November 1, 2021.
A Four-Phased Approach to Restart
The CDC wants to phase the restart of cruise operations in gradually -- very gradually.
Step 1: The CDC starts to establish lab testing of all crew members on ships in U.S. waters. This would at least allow cruise lines to fully crew up a vessel for restart and sail it into U.S. waters for testing and any applicable quarantine periods to end.
Given how long it took get crew home following the shutdown of cruise, this could be a lengthy process.
Step 2: Simulated voyages are conducted with "volunteers" to assess health, safety and operational protocols. Judging by the word "simulated", these would likely occur alongside in port, or on short jaunts out to sea.
Step 3: A Certification process. Little detail is provided about this step, but presumably it would follow a similar process to the color-coded charts the CDC had developed this past summer for vessels to allow crew changes.
Step 4: A Return to Service. Passenger voyages would begin, initially those seven days or less. Some lines, like Royal Caribbean, have already stated that the first sailings to come back would be short voyages, likely to one or two ports, aboard a handful of ships.
"These phases will be further determined based on public health considerations including the trajectory of COVID-19 transmission and the demonstrated ability of cruise ship operators to successfully employ measures that mitigate the risk of COVID-19," states the CDC in its 40-page document (PDF) outlining the framework.
In other words: expect the timing of these stages to be fairly fluid. With most lines having already cancelled cruises until December 1, it may be late December, or even early January, before any sort of sailings resume.
Lines had previously stated it could take between 30 to 60 days to bring a ship back into operational service, depending on its layup status.
COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificates Required
A further step for cruise lines will be the requirement to obtain a "COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate".
This includes the requirement that cruise lines document a medical agreement between each line and shoreside healthcare entities that address evacuation needs in the event of COVID-19 infection; a shoreside operator in case of quarantine needs for COVID-19 cases and close contacts identified from embarkation to disembarkation; and an agreement between lines and ports that governs the number of ships that can be in port at any given time, so as to not overburden local health agencies.
What Are "Simulated Voyages"?
While it isn't clear who will take part in these simulated voyages, the CDC does lay out several requirements for these volunteer "passengers" and cruise lines.
Simulated voyages will be required to test all embarkation and disembarkation procedures, including terminal check-in. Procedural testing will also include onboard activities, including dining and entertainment venues, and excursions on private islands, "if any are planned during restricted passenger voyages."
Cruise lines will also be required to test evacuation procedures, transfer of symptomatic passengers or crew from cabins to isolation rooms and will have to test the quarantine of all remaining passengers and non-essential crew.
These extensive run-throughs will act as a sort of muster drill, but on a vastly larger scale.
Passengers and crew will have to be tested at the start and end of each "simulated" voyage, a move that is likely to find its way into the requirements when limited operations resume.
Should a real case of COVID-19 be detected during these simulated voyages, the CDC will immediately end the test.
At the end of these simulated voyages -- it's not clear how many test runs each line will be required to do -- the CDC will issue a "COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate".
"The cruise ship operator must document any deficiencies in its health and safety protocols through an “after-action” report and address how the cruise ship operator intends to address those deficiencies prior to applying for a COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate," states the CDC report.
The CDC requires advance written notice that the cruise line plans to conduct the simulation.
Who can participate? Well, not as many people as you might think. First, you have to be 18 years or older. You also have to provide a "written certification from a healthcare provider that the volunteer passenger has no pre-existing medical conditions that would place that individual at high risk for COVID-19 as determined through CDC guidance."
Participants also can't be paid or be forced into participation as a condition of employment.
What Will Cruises Look Like When They Do Have Paying Passengers?
When cruises do resume, they will likely look a bit like the ones that have resumed successfully over in Europe.
First, cruise lines will not be allowed to sail voyages longer than seven nights from any U.S. port of call. The CDC notes it can shorten this length at its leisure.
Cruise lines must screen passengers for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 prior to boarding, and must conduct COVID-19 PCR testing at embarkation, disembarkation, and during the voyage, if necessary. Laboratory results must be available before any passengers are allowed to embark or disembark.
Cruise ship operators also have to meet the CDC's standards for hand hygiene; face coverings; physical distancing requirements; and vessel sanitation.
The CDC may also require post-day disembarkation testing of all passengers and crew -- something that could end the days of those seeking to fly home immediately after the voyage has concluded.
As a condition of operating, cruise lines will be required to advise passengers in all marketing materials, websites, and in materials for voyages, that if a threshold for COVID-19 is detected during the voyage, the ship will return to its U.S. port of embarkation and that subsequent travel, including return home, could be delayed.
When Can Cruises Resume?
Given the scope of these orders, the short answer is probably 'not anytime soon.'
However, some lines -- like Florida-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line -- have stated they will resume sailings on December 18, 2020 aboard Grand Classica.
The upstart line may have a chance in doing so: it operates only short two-night cruises to the Bahamas and back and relies primarily on local passengers within driving distance of the port.
For other lines, it will take some time to get ships operational, complete the required testing and simulated voyages, and receive certification. How fast this takes will all depend on how quickly lines can crew up a few ships, and how willing the CDC is to work in conjunction with the lines.
It will also heavily depend on the progress of COVID-19 within the United States over the next few months.
However, the CDC's announcement is a positive one, as it will allow cruises the chance to prove their health and safety protocols and resume limited sailings.