(4:40 p.m. EDT) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released further guidance Wednesday on how the cruise industry could conduct the test cruises, the next step in returning ships into service from American homeports.
The guidance -- Phase 2B and 3 of the agency’s Conditional Sail Order -- follows information released by the CDC last week, after a month of dialogue with the cruise industry. The test cruises with volunteer passengers are not required if lines agree to have 98 percent of their crew and 95 percent of guests vaccinated.
Still, for cruise lines that might draw heavily on families with young children, meeting that vaccine threshold might not be possible. The test cruises provide another avenue for cruising to resume.
In addition, cruise lines may decide to operate some ships with vaccinated guests and go the test cruise route with others. That scenario might help cruise lines navigate the tricky political waters surrounding vaccine passports; Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned them in Florida, for example.
The agency said last week that it planned for its guidance to help cruising resume by mid-July. Cruise ships that pass the test cruise phase will be permitted to sail with passengers, the CDC said.
“This goal aligns with the prospective resumption of passenger operations in the United States by mid-summer, expressed by many major cruise ship operators and travelers,” the agency said in its statement.
Cruise Critic has reached out to cruise lines for comment and will update this story when new information comes in.
The test cruise route will take some time, although the CDC noted that with Wednesday’s guidance, “cruise ship operators now have all the necessary requirements and recommendations they need to start simulated voyages before resuming restricted passenger voyages.”
When each cruise line can begin test cruises depends on when they can get through Phase 2A of the requirements, says a CDC spokesperson. That phase requires cruise lines to negotiate health & safety agreements with U.S. ports they will visit.
The cruise lines must do a test cruise for each ship, as opposed to one that represents the fleet. The agency recommended that the cruise line notify the CDC and request approval at least 30 days before a test cruise, but said that they would respond to applications within five days. That timeline seems to indicate that the earliest the cruises can be conducted is June.
In its application, the cruise line must specify the dates and locations of the test cruise, submit the port agreements, show copies of the notifications to the volunteer passengers and more documentation.
All volunteer passengers participating in the test cruises will either need to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or, if not vaccinated, “written documentation from a healthcare provider or a self-certified statement that the volunteer passenger has no medical conditions that would place the volunteer at high risk for severe COVID-19.”
Included in the guidance are operation procedures that include “surveillance for COVID-19 on board, laboratory testing, infection prevention and control, face mask use, social distancing, passenger interactive experiences, and embarkation and disembarkation procedures.”
The lines are required to explain in writing to volunteers, all of whom must be over 18, that they are participating in “a simulation of health and safety protocols that are unproven and untested in the United States for purposes of simulating a cruise ship voyage and that sailing during a pandemic is an inherently risky activity.”
The agency is recommending that the test cruises last between two to seven days, with at least one overnight stay. The test cruises will be designed to test the ship’s ability to “mitigate the risk of COVID-19 onboard the cruise ship, including through embarkation, disembarkation, and post-disembarkation testing.”
Onboard protocols on the test cruise must include hand hygiene, use of face masks and social distancing for crew and passengers -- even those that have been vaccinated, the CDC said. The ship will have to modify meal service and entertainment venues to allow for social distancing during the test cruise.
Shore excursions will also be regulated. Passengers will not be able to go off on their own during a port stop during a test cruise, and the shore excursions can only include passengers and crew from the same ship, the agency said. The shore excursions sponsored by the cruise ship must include social distancing, mask wearing and other public health measures.
Private islands visits for the test cruises can only involve one ship at a time, the agency said.
As you’d expect, the simulated voyages will come with extensive COVID-19 testing requirements.
Volunteers will need to take a COVID-19 PCR test on the day of embarkation (unless they have written documentation of recovery from COVID-19) and again on the day that they disembark.
They also have to agree to be tested three- to five- days after the voyage -- with cruise lines having the option of providing test passengers with a self-administered nasal test to be shipped directly to a laboratory. Another option would be to get the test done at a facility and send the reults in. The ship has to get results after the cruise from at least 75 percent of the passengers.
The cruise ship operator must also conduct testing, using onboard point-of care equipment, of any passenger or crew who reports COVID-like symptoms during the simulated voyage. Any identified close contacts will also be tested.
In its guidance, the CDC says that it will require cruise ship operators to immediately end the voyage if COVID-19 is detected in 1.5 percent of the passengers or 1 percent of the crew.
If the test cruise is forced to end early because of an outbreak, the cruise line will have to go back to the CDC and go over any “deficiencies” and present a plan to fix them before the line conducts another simulated voyage.
The cruise line will also have to repeat a test cruise at a later date.
Any passengers who who were on a test cruise facing an outbreak will have to avoid all commercial and ground transportation for 14 days, unless they’ve been fully vaccinated or can present proof that they’ve had COVID-19 in the past 90 days.