(4:05 p.m. EST) -- With numerous cruise lines suspending their 2021 seasons into spring – and in some cases, beyond -- is it possible that the companies are simply waiting to restart operations until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available?
It's a plausible theory, although no cruise line executive has said that publicly. As of early December, numerous lines have cancelled voyages into March and April, while some have postponed sailings into June and even the fall for select vessels.
While the lines have cited the restart regulations put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the reason for the early 2021 cancellations, it's no secret that the current restart conditions put forth by the U.S. government agency are lengthy, with hurdles that will take months to implement.
If approved vaccines do begin this month in several countries, as is currently projected, it might be easier for the lines to wait.
The Clues are in the Cancellations
One potential clue toward this line of thinking could lie in the fact that numerous cruise lines have all picked similar restart dates: March 1 and April 1.
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that vaccines for COVID-19 should begin rolling out to U.S. citizens by December, while the majority of adults wishing to get vaccinated should be able to do so later in 2021.
Waiting until at least some important segments of the populace are vaccinated could also allow for a change in the current climate surrounding travel.
Currently, new COVID-19 cases in the United States
in the world, with over 100,000 new cases being reported each day and almost 1,000 new deaths per day. The U.S. has the most active COVID-19 cases in the world, with over five million infections, and the highest number of deaths, at over 273,000.
The CDC has actively discouraged people from traveling and placed the highest warning level possible on cruising, even though no ships are currently sailing. While travel still took place over the Thanksgiving holiday, it was not seen as the responsible choice for Americans -- and similar messages are being broadcast for the December holiday season.
Distribution of a vaccine could start to mitigate those numbers. If the daily infection rate lowers and cases throughout the United States become more stable, acceptance of travelling and cruising could improve, giving lines the social license they need to successfully restart.
Cruising Safely During COVID-19
Whether it makes sense for cruise lines to hold off all revenue operations until a vaccine can be distributed is a twofold question.
First, it would behoove cruise operators to start on the right foot. No operator wants to become the poster child for COVID-19 infection, particularly given the negative coverage towards the cruise industry at the start of the global pandemic.
Secondly, waiting for a vaccine -- or even requiring potential passengers to be vaccinated before cruising -- takes much of the risk out of this activity, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or who are front-line workers.
But waiting for COVID-19 to be fully eradicated before cruising resumes isn't all that likely. Cruise lines are burning through cash and acquiring massive debt loads in order to stay afloat in what is more or less a zero-revenue environment. Chances are good that lines will restart while the pandemic is still active throughout the globe, though hopefully brought under control with vaccinations.
Cruising had successes in Europe over the summer, when transmission rates were lowered and new health and safety protocols were put into place. Likewise, cruising has resumed in Asia, specifically Taiwan and Singapore, after those countries cut their virus cases. Even within the U.S., two Maine schooners were able to have a shortened summer season, thanks to testing requirements and the fact that the ships drew passengers who were already fairly cautious about their behavior before boarding and while onboard.
But the precautions aren't foolproof when ships draw passengers from a populace with high caseloads. Just look what happened on SeaDream Yacht Club in November, when a positive COVID-19 case slipped through the line's rigorous double-testing requirement, due to an American passenger.
Even if vaccines lower the transmission rate, expect the now common-sense daily protocols such as masking, testing and social distancing, to remain part of cruising in 2021, at least when the industry initially begins.
The CDC's New Framework and Vaccines
In its "Framework for Conditional Sailing" released October 30, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes no mention of either a vaccine requirement for cruise lines, nor does it specify what would happen to its complex list of requirements cruise lines must abide by should a vaccine for COVID-19 become readily available.
A number of vaccines are currently in-development around the world, and high-risk residents of the United States could start receiving these as early as
While the Framework for Conditional Sailing remains in effect until November 1, 2021, documentation issued by the CDC notes that it will be in effect until the expiration of the pandemic; the CDC Director rescinds or modifies the order "based on specific public health or other considerations"; or November 1, 2021.
As part of its rationale for its restrictive orders affecting the cruise industry within the United States since March, the CDC notes that, "The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread rapidly around the world with no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized vaccine."
The FDA will hold
on December 10 and December 17 to discuss the authorization of vaccines for COVID-19 developed by Moderna, Inc. and Pfizer. Approval by the FDA of an authorized vaccine could, in turn, significantly alter the CDC's findings against cruise operations within the United States.
Though neither the CDC nor cruise lines have confirmed this, it is possible that the prevalence of a readily-available vaccine could aid in the resumption of cruise, making the prospects of an early-spring restart look more promising.
"While we can't pre-judge the outcome, people are pretty optimistic," said Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain, speaking on the FDA's upcoming meetings, in a
to travel partners.
"The announcement about the efficacy of the new vaccines, and the imminence of their likely approval…it's truly historic," he said. "The enormous effort of so many people has accomplished the unimaginable."
Fain also indicated that these developments, coupled with health and safety guidelines, could be encouraging for return-to-cruise in the near term.
"It also seems that with the newest advances, the ramp-up (to sailing) may be faster than many had feared."
Cruise Critic Members React
Vaccines are on the mind of Cruise Critic readers, many of whom are coming to similar conclusions that cruising will not return in a significant way until vaccines begin and take hold.
In its ongoing cruiser sentiment survey, Cruise Critic asked members about vaccines and cruising. Of the 17 percent of respondents who said they were unsure if they would book a future cruise (647 respondents in total), 77 percent said that a COVID-19 vaccine would help drive their decision.
Other factors, including the lifting of warnings and travel restrictions, and the decrease in active cases of COVID-19, ranked nearly as high, coming in at 69 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
On Cruise Critic's message boards, members were generally positive about the prospects of a COVID-19 vaccination and their future cruise plans:
"We intend to have the vaccine as soon as we are able to - we are both over 65 and keen to get back to some kind of normality in our daily life," writes SeaJane. "We have a cruise booked for October 2021, but shall want to see what future cruises look like before we commit to making final payment."
Some posters wonder whether proof-of-vaccination will become a part of routine travel on airlines or cruise ships.
"In reply to post regarding whether P&O will want all passengers vaccinated, I think they will require proof of vaccination otherwise no point if some passengers are not protected and could take the virus onboard," writes hollyjess.
Other posters note that an effective COVID-19 vaccine program is just one component that will allow cruising to restart, while other hurdles and technical challenges could remain for some time.
"Distribution of an efficient vaccine to a majority of our population is just one part of cruise resumption," writes evandbob. "The CDC issued a list of tests that the cruise lines must perform before allowing the restrictions to cease. Remember that the lines will attempt short trial cruises to demonstrate their COVID mitigation and prevention proficiency."
Some posters note firmly that they will refrain from cruising until a vaccine for COVID-19 is readily available.
"We would not consider a cruise unless a safe, effective vaccine was available for at least a few months," writes iancal.
"There are lots of other travel options for us to consider in the interim, once travel opens up."