(12:45 p.m. EDT) -- Numerous cruise lines have targeted July 4, 2021 -- Independence Day in the United States -- as the date they'd like to see cruises resume from U.S. homeports under enhanced health and safety protocols, many of which include full vaccination against COVID-19 for all passengers and crew.
As April draws to a close, however, the question must be asked: is it already too late for a July 4 restart?
Cruise Critic looks at some of the issues which continue to stall the industry's attempted restart of cruise operations from U.S. homeports.
The primary roadblock to any resumption of cruise activities from U.S. homeports continues to be the directives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), which has prohibited nearly all cruise activities in U.S. waters for 13 months.
The CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, in place since October 30, 2020, was updated with new technical guidance on April 1. That guidance added new agreements that must be fulfilled with ports and local authorities, signed off on by cruise lines and approved by the CDC, before test cruises can begin.
The CDC has stated these test or simulation voyages are critical to their sign-off on the safe resumption of cruise. Yet no timeline has been established for these to take place, and no further details have been provided in the intervening six months since they were first mandated.
The cruise industry, meanwhile, has described the CDC's new April technical guidance as "unworkable". Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings President and CEO Frank Del Rio personally sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, asking for permission to restart under strict health and safety protocols by July 4, 2021.
Despite mounting pressure on the CDC, including lawsuits from both Florida and Alaska and a vocal public relations backlash, the organization has not changed course.
Until it does, large-scale cruise operations within the U.S. will continue to remain shuttered.
The fact the CDC has continued to remain tight-lipped about any return to service, or timelines for future technical guidance for the industry, has serious consequences for the long-term restart of U.S. homeport operations.
"We've been now stopped going on 14 months," NCLH boss Del Rio told Cruise Critic in an exclusive video interview in mid-April. "It takes a good 90 days to stand up ships, to get them ready. It's time. We want to get back to cruising this summer. We want to save the Alaska season, at least the latter part of it."
"We're confident -- beyond confident -- that we can keep COVID off these ships if everyone is vaccinated and follows these protocols," concluded Del Rio.
That 90-day timeline has been echoed by executives from other major cruise brands, with most targeting a 60-to-90-day window to ramp-up shipboard operations from layup status.
Preparing a ship for return to service is a herculean task. Crew must be brought back on board, quarantined, and in many cases need to be fully vaccinated. Reduced air service and international travel restrictions have made this process truly laborious, with ships having to sail to far-flung parts of the world just to even embark crew.
Then, cabins need to be prepared and put back in shipshape order for passenger service. Provisions need to be loaded onboard, from linens to food and beverages to technical items.
The vessel then needs to sail back from its anchorage or layup location and reposition to its homeport -- a journey that could take days or weeks depending on its current location.
Once in the U.S. the CDC will almost certainly conduct its Vessel Sanitation Inspection Program, which could further delay operations if faults are found.
Assuming a 90-day timeline, if the CDC were to grant approval for cruises to resume, without conditions or test cruises, most lines would not be able to restart domestic cruises from U.S. homeports until early August.
A 60-day timeline would allow for sailings to barely restart by July 4. For that to happen, however, CDC approval would need to be granted almost immediately, and be relatively condition-free.
A July 4 restart of cruise operations may indeed be possible -- just not from homeports in the United States.
Frustrated by a perceived lack of movement on the part of the CDC, cruise lines have begun moving their operations away from the United States, announcing plans to resume sailings from new homeports around the world that have been receptive to cruise traffic.
In recent weeks, numerous cruise lines including Crystal, Celebrity, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn and Viking have all announced June and July restarts from Bermuda and different islands within the Caribbean, open to fully vaccinated passengers from the U.S. and abroad.
Additional lines have announced operational restarts in Iceland, Greece and the Mediterranean that are open to vaccinated travellers from all nationalities. Over the weekend, news came out signaling that the European Union could open travel to U.S. citizens who are vaccinated. That might prompt even more international restarts, if cruise lines decide to move ships over to Europe for the summer.
Until the CDC releases more technical guidance on its Conditional Sail Order, the cruise industry's focus will continue to shift elsewhere as it looks to join other forms of travel seeking to recover financially from the ongoing global health pandemic.
Once that time comes, operations can begin to seriously restart from U.S. homeports. For now, the July 4 target date for the return of large-scale U.S. cruise service seems more like a wish than a plan.