On January 15, 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will finally allow the current Conditional Sailing Order for cruise ships to expire, replaced by a new, voluntary COVID-19 cruise program available to U.S. and foreign-flagged cruise ships operating in U.S. waters.
The CSO has been in place since October 2020 and since been extended three times. It replaced the months-long No Sail Order put in place in March 2020.
The news comes just one day after Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky point blank during a Senate hearing whether the agency planned to allow the CSO to expire as believed January 15. It's also less than two weeks after the CDC placed a Level 4: Do Not Travel warning on cruising, advising people to avoid cruises regardless of vaccination status.
Walensky responded by stating she did not believe the CSO would be renewed but that the CDC would continue to provide guidance and assistance to the cruise industry during the pandemic. Walensky also gave a nod of recognition to the “stepped up” efforts that have been made by the entire industry in order to keep cruising safe.
"I think the Conditional Sail Order, and the fact the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding, as you know, the compliance with the Sail Order without the order necessarily even needing to be in place is a real testimony to how well that has worked and how we've worked collaboratively with the industry."
The move to a voluntary program is no doubt good news, though not surprising. On January 5, the CDC reaffirmed to Cruise Critic the CSO would turn into a voluntary program.
Rules of the new voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program have been confirmed to Cruise Critic by a representattive of the CDC and will be as follows:
Lines that opt in to the program will continue to see masking and testing guidelines, and be able to dial back some of the onboard masking and other health protocols on ships sailing with at least a 95% vaccination rate among crew and passengers.
Passengers will once again be able to use buffets and self-serve stations, regardless of passenger vaccination status.
Finally, simulated voyages will no longer be required.
Participating lines' ships will continue to receive red, orange, yellow or green color status based on the number COVID-19 cases below or above the CDC's investigation threshold, although the qualifiers for yellow, orange and red color status are being updated. Addtionally, case thresholds were set at 0.1% under the current CSO but will rise to 0.3% in the new voluntary program.
In a statement to Cruise Critic, the CDC also noted that, "Maritime Unit will work closely with cruise ships opting into the program and continue to monitor COVID-19 preventive measures and cases onboard these cruise ships through daily enhanced data collection and inspections."
Further details on the program will be released via the CDC website on January 15.
Lines operating in U.S. and international waters that decide to opt-out of the voluntary program will be identified on the CDC website via a ‘gray' color designation, which denotes that the ships “may have their own COVID-19 health and safety protocols, which the CDC has not reviewed or confirmed”. Any lines only operating in U.S. waters that choose not to participate will not be listed on the CDC site at all.
Regardless of whether a line or ship participates in the program, passengers, crew and port staff will be required to follow CDC mandates on mask wearing in public transportation hubs.
Under the CSO, there was an exception for U.S.-flagged ships (i.e., ships registered in the United State), who were encouraged but not required to adopt the CSO guidelines. These ships will again get a break with the CDC's new voluntary program as those who choose not to participate will not be marked as having a gray ship status.
Cruise lines have until January 21, 2022, to join the voluntary program.