(2:30 p.m. EST) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated it has yet to deliver necessary technical instructions to cruise lines and port operators, nearly four months after issuing its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order.
The order, which was issued on October 30, 2020 and replaced the long-standing "No-Sail Order" that the CDC had been extending since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of last year, was widely seen as a framework under which the limited resumption of cruise activates within the United States could begin.
Now, nearly four months after its issuance with little to no progress in the interim, the CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing is clearly the same as the previous "No Sail" orders that had originally been imposed on the cruise lines.
"Returning to passenger cruising is a phased approach, and our current focus is on the protection of crew and working with cruise lines to implement the initial phase requirements of testing all crew and developing onboard laboratory capacity," a CDC spokesperson told Cruise Critic in an email.
"Future orders and technical instructions will address additional activities, to include simulated voyages, conditional sailing, and restricted voyages to help cruise lines prepare for and return to passenger operations in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers and crew members.
"We anticipate the next phase of technical instructions (Technical Instructions for Port and Local Health Authorities Agreements) to be released in the next few weeks."
Without Technical Instructions, Test Voyages Cannot Proceed
In November, Cruise Critic had posed a variety of questions to the CDC, ranging from conducting test voyages to what would happen to passengers booked on back-to-back cruises (voyages over eight days in length are prohibited under the new order) to requirements for passengers once voyages resumed.
While responsive to Cruise Critic, the CDC would only comment that, "This will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders."
Now, over three full months later, the cruise industry is no closer to learning what those technical instructions will be, or what they will require of cruise lines next.
Pressed by investors during Carnival Corporation's fourth-quarter earnings call in January, President and CEO Arnold Donald stated that while there has been contact with the CDC, much work remains to be done.
"It's a work in process," said Donald. "We have calls as often as we need with them…we're on track to be able to do whatever we need to do in a very timely manner to be able to resume cruise."
Chief Financial Officer David Bernstein agreed, offering up perhaps the clearest assessment of what many industry-watchers had already suspected: that the guidance from the CDC had not yet been delivered.
""For the US, for the CDC, we're still waiting for a lot of the technical guidance that was not included in the original conditional sail order," he remarked.
Without additional technical guidance, the test voyages mandated by the CDC cannot proceed. And without those test voyages, cruise -- in any limited or scaled-back capacity -- cannot resume in the United States, or within U.S. territorial waters.
The CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing applies to vessels over 250 passengers and is in effect until November 1, 2021.
The Latest Delay in a Long Series of Delays
The revelation that technical guidance still has yet to be delivered to cruise lines comes as the cruise industry approaches the one-year anniversary of the CDC's original "No-Sail" order.
The ruling, which took effect March 14, 2020, was extended time after time. In late-September, the order was extended again for 30 days, paving way for some hope that, come fall, a return to cruise might have been possible, particularly given the successful restart of cruise lines like MSC in Italy.
This optimism was buoyed by the completion and submission of findings from the Healthy Sail Panel. Backed by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, along with a team of distinguished medical experts, the Panel submitted a series of 74 detailed recommendations to the CDC in September.
Those findings were quickly followed by recommendations from CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association, and polling done by the CDC itself in which a majority of public respondents indicated a desire to see cruise operations resume, with the proper health and safety protocols in place.
To-date, the cruise industry has been the only segment of the travel and tourism industry within the United States that has been completely prohibited from resuming limited operations. As Cruise Critic reported last month, requirements from the CDC for airline and hotel operators have been largely nonexistent until the change in administration. Cases of COVID-19 have been present throughout the airline industry, and hotel operators are only required to report COVID-19 cases to local health authorities.
Last week, the CDC did, however, mandate the usage of masks for all forms of travel within the United States for the first time since the global health pandemic began, after urging from the Biden Administration.
What Comes Next?
So far, the cruise industry has been attempting to satisfy the few CDC requirements it can. Ships intending to operate within U.S. waters have repositioned to the United States to satisfy quarantine and testing requirements, and the majority of these have now achieved the "Green" status necessary to proceed with test voyages.
When those voyages happen, however, is anyone's guess.
One U.S.-based river cruise line is already looking to the future, mandating vaccinations for all passengers, crew and staff as a roadmap to restarting.
Cruise Critic will update this story with more information as it becomes available.