(10:04 p.m. EDT) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have released guidelines for their new voluntary COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program -- and it's full of more regulations than anticipated.
Rules and regulations introduced under the voluntary program include new categories for onboard vaccination levels, requirements for COVID-19 response plans, enhanced onboard testing and quarantine protocols for symptomatic cases, daily data reporting, port authority documentation, capacity for onboard or shoreside laboratory testing, PPE requirements and more.
Among the most controversial aspects of the program are the requirement that anyone testing positive onboard not be re-tested for false-positives and be immediately isolated, and the potential for shipboard quarantines lasting up to 10 days in duration for affected passengers and all suspected close contacts. The CDC requires anyone with symptoms similar to COVID-19 be immediately isolated.
Many people in the industry and those who cover it expected the voluntary program to be largely identical to the agency's Conditional Sail Order, which expired last month. However, the CDC guidance issued late Wednesday proved to be anything but straightforward and immediately drew condemnation from industry officials.
Indeed the CDC’s new guidelines even seem to go against what the agency themselves said just one month ago when CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gave a nod to the cruise industry at a Senate hearing. Walensky cited the cruise industry’s compliance with the Conditional Sail Order, without it even necessarily needing to be in place, “a real testimony to how well that has worked and how well we’ve worked collaboratively with the industry.”
The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents much of the industry, spoke out in a statement voicing its confoundedness over the "more complex and unwarranted" rigidity and intricacies of the new measures.
"Regrettably, upon initial review, the latest CDC guidance appears out of step with the actual public health conditions on cruise ships," part of the statement reads. "And unnecessary in light of societal trends away from more restrictive measures." The same day the CDC released the new guidelines, several states, including New York and California — two of the most heavily-restricted states in the U.S. — announced plans to ease masking and/or all COVID-19 restrictions.
Cruise lines have until February 18, 2022, to notify the CDC's Maritime Unit whether they will participate in the voluntary program. Any cruise line that has not notified the CDC by the deadline will be considered to have opted-out. So far, 20 cruise ships have already opted-into the program -- likely vessels from Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which opted into the program before details were made available by the CDC.
What does it all mean for cruisers? Read our detailed assessment of the new protocols -- and how they might affect your cruise.
Cruise Lines That Choose to Opt-Into the CDC's New Program
As with the previous Conditional Sailing Order, the CDC's new COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships only applies to foreign-flagged ships sailing or planning to sail in U.S. waters. U.S.-flagged cruise ships are allowed to follow the voluntary program guidelines at the cruise operator's discretion.
Foreign-flagged ships that opt-into the program will be required to follow all program guidelines as a condition of participation. The CDC has stated no participating ship "will be able to choose which recommendations to follow."
Cruise ships that opt-into the program will be allowed to opt-out at a later date by emailing the CDC's Maritime Unit for instructions. Lines that opt out of but then elect to join the program need to do so with 28 days' notice.
So far, there seems to be no downside to opting out of the voluntary program, with the exception that cruise ships that have not elected to participate will be identified gray in the agency's color-coded chart.
For the most part, onboard preventative measures such as enhanced cleaning, hand sanitizer stations and the upholding of the CDC's discretionary mask order will remain the same as they were under the previous Conditional Sail Order.
New Vaccination Categories For Cruise Ships
However, three new categories will be created to categorize all cruise ships participating in the program -- and the potential for confusion is strong.
"Vaccination Standard of Excellence" is the highest category possible, requiring cruise ships to sail with 95 percent of passengers and crew on board to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have received boosters.
"Highly Vaccinated" ships denote ships with at least 95 percent of passengers fully vaccinated against COVID-19, minus booster shots.
"Not Highly Vaccinated" ships make up the bottom tier, in which less than 95 percent of passengers and crew have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Currently, 103 ships fall into the "Highly Vaccinated" category. The CDC has released no similar guidance for any other travel or marine industry in the United States, including air transportation, ferry services or the merchant cargo shipping industry.
The CDC further states it will review its voluntary guidelines for the cruise industry and, if applicable, reassess them on March 18 ,2022.
Currently, only Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has publicly committed to joining the new voluntary CDC program.
Cruise Critic will update this article as more information becomes available. Read reaction to the CDC's new guidelinesfrom cruise lines and industry watchers.