(11:11 a.m. EST) -- As the February 18, 2022 deadline for ships to voluntarily opt in or out of the new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) voluntary COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program loomed near on Friday, the official count on the CDC's online dashboard reamined unchanged. By the end of the working day, over 100 ships showed as opted-in. Over the weekend, number of ships participating in the program jumped to 121. All the while, the count for non-participating ships remained at zero.
For many in the industry, the cruise lines' last minute moves to join the CDC's COVID-019 Cruise Ship Program is likely due to the easing of a few key program guidelines that allow cruise ships to be more discerning when it comes to things like isolation, quarantine periods, ship vaccacition status counts and more.
Ships that have opted into the CDC's voluntary COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program
Royal Caribbean Group, emcompassing Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea, reconfirmed on the Friday deadline it had joined the program. "Royal Caribbean Group informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that it will participate in the COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, the new voluntary program the agency unveiled," the company announced via a statement.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which comprises Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, had previously announced it would join the voluntary program, even before the detail so of the program had been released. As of now, they have not changed their stance.
Also on Friday, Carnival Cruise LIne announced it, too, would opt into the program.
Over the holiday weekend, Cruise Critic received confirmation from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) that 108 of the then-currently 113 ships participating in the prgram were CLIA members, including the aforementioned Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line Holding, and Royal Caribbean Group, as well as Azamara, SeaDream Yacht Club, MSC and Virgin Voyages.
And, on Monday, Princess Cruises joined the growing number of lines and ships, confirming its participation in the program for all ships sailing out of the U.S. ports through March 31.
"Princess has proven cruise vacations are safe and healthy for our guests and teams," said John Padgett, President, Princess Cruises. "Going forward, Princess is prepared to adjust operating protocols to ensure our guests have amazing vacations while always protecting the safety of our guests, team members and destinations."
Padgett added, "We appreciate the ongoing collaboration among multiple government agencies as well as the support of Alaska officials and other delegations."
The other 5 ships (non-CLIA members) are: a Bahamas Paradise ship; two Viking ships, plus two Crystal Cruises ships still listed on the website, though the line has now ceased operations.
Last-minute CDC changes that seem to have sealed the deal
On February 15, 2022, the CDC lowered its travel advisory for cruising from a Level 4 to a Level 3. Within 48 hour, the agency also quietly softened its guidelines on the voluntary program, easing requirements and giving cruise lines more discretion in terms of how they will implement onboard protocols.
The COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program changes came less than 24 hours before the imposed February 18 deadline for cruise lines to opt in or out of the voluntary COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program, details of which were released February 9.
The original guidelines were initially met with surprise from the cruise industry -- and the majority of cruisers -- who believed cruise lines have been treated unfairly when their protocols already far exceed those the CDC requires on land.
Softened guidelines and requirements concerning isolation and quarantine periods for asymptomatic close contacts of positive cases and allowing cruise ships to exclude certain populations in calculations determining overall ship vaccination status are two of the most notable changes.
Requirements foribidding retesting of passengers or crew who test positive via an initial NAAT test remain unchanged.
CLIA sent Cruise Critic the following statement: "The updated instructions are certainly a step further in the right direction -- recognizing proof in cruise line protocols and an improving health landscape -- and were key factors for CLIA cruise line members in making their individual decisions about enrollment in the Program and CLIA’s recommendation that members participate.
"That said, there is still more movement needed in order to bring greater alignment of cruise across the travel and tourism sector -- particularly given the evidence of how effective cruise protocols are -- and the pre-existing, multi-layers of regulation under which cruise ships operate.
"The bottom line: The health and safety protocols our cruise line members are required to follow are unequaled compared to virtually any other commercial setting and will continue to serve as a model for others."
Here's a look at the new guidelines.
New Options for Quarantine and Isolation
Cruise ships will now have more discretion when it comes to isolation and quarantine periods for asymptomatic passengers who have been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case.
Original CDC voluntary program guidelines required all close contact passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to be isolated for 10 days with no outside contact, receiving a viral test on the final day of quarantine.
Isolation Periods Have Been Lowered for Passengers Fully up to Date With Vaccinations
New guidelines have dropped the isolation period to five days for asymptomatic close contact passengers who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, including any boosters for which they are eligible. Asymptomatic close contacts who are not up to date with their vaccines should still be quarantined for 10 days.
Quarantine and isolation periods begin the first full day after the passenger's last exposure to a positive case. Viral tests must be performed on the first and last day of quarantine, and passengers may only be released from isolation if both tests are negative.
Isolation and Quarantine Can Be Reduced or Replaced With Daily Viral Testing
Additionally, cruise operators are now able to exercise discretion in how they handle isolation and quarantine periods.
In lieu of five days of required quarantine, cruise lines can instead choose to administer daily viral testing to asymptomatic close contacts who are fully up to date with their vaccinations.
However, these passengers must take all meals in their cabins, wear properly-fitting masks at all times when not in their cabins and if anyone, such as crew, family or friends, enters their cabin.
Cruise operators also may now reduce isolation periods for asymptomatic close contact passengers who are not up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations by five days, instead opting for a hybrid approach of five days of isolation followed by five days of daily viral testing. Once released from quarantine, these passengers will be required to follow the same masking and stateroom dining as above.
New Wording Exempts Passengers Ineligible for Vaccines from Counting Toward a Cruise Ship's Vaccination Status
The CDC's new voluntary program created new vaccination status categories to denote vaccination levels aboard each ship in the program. Originally, these categories were determined by the overall percentage of fully vaccinated passengers and passengers who are fully up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations onboard the ship. Cruise ships were required to calculate these percentages based on the full number of passengers and crew.
The CDC has further defined the definition of "up to date", stating it "means when a person has received all recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including any booster dose(s) when eligible".
The clarification of this new wording now allows cruise ships to exempt passengers who are ineligible for boosters -- namely children under 5 -- in their calculation toward the CDC's "Vaccination Standard of Excellence." This classification, the highest available, encompasses cruise ships to operate with at least 95% of their passengers and 95% of their crew being up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.
Since the CDC's February 18 deadline, counts on the CDC's Ship Color Status Page have been volitile. Both the numbers for "Highly-Vaccinated" ships and ships that have opted into the COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program continue to rise and fall. However, numbers denoting the number of ships designated with a "Vaccination Standard of Excellence" and the number of ships that have opted out of the COVID-19 Cruise Ship Program have stayed steadily at zero.
"At this time, all foreign-flagged cruise ships currently operating in U.S. waters have opted into CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships," a representative from the CDC confirmed to Cruise Critic on Tuesday morning. "Our Cruise Ship Status Dashboard will be updated to reflect these changes shortly."
We will continue updating this story as new information becomes available.