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Travel: CDC Says COVID Protocols Are Now Optional for Cruise Lines

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) COVID -19 guidance for cruise ships will become optional this weekend, in spite of a recent rise in onboard cases, agency director Dr. Rochelle Walensky confirmed this week. Cruise ships will be able to set their own rules on board after the CDC 's Conditional Sail Order expires on Saturday. The order, which was extended in October 2021, was first implemented after the agency lifted its No Sail Order in October 2020. "I think the conditional sail order and the fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in doing and exceeding, as you

  CDC Says COVID Protocols Are Now Optional for Cruise Lines © Danny Lehman/Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Lines

Health guidelines for cruising amid COVID-19 are shifting once again. On Saturday, the mandatory protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expired. Those rules, which were called a Conditional Sailing Order and included steps like testing and quarantining for positive passengers, will now be optional for cruise lines.

“I think the Conditional Sail Order and the fact the industry has stepped up and is now interested in exceeding the compliance with the Sail Order without the order necessarily being in place is a real testimonial to how well that has worked,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, in a Senate hearing last week.

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“ Cruise lines are encouraged to continue to follow all CDC public health measures, including reporting, testing, and infection prevention and control ,” the CDC said in a statement, adding that it would release the details of its voluntary COVID -19 Program for Cruise Ships at a later date. A number of cruise ship operators are expected to opt in to the discretionary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said in a statement ahead of the CSO expiry that it would continue to apply the protocols on a voluntary basis. “Furthering our commitment to health and safety, with the expiration of the CDC’s

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC ) said people should avoid traveling on cruise ships regardless of their vaccination status, as daily COVID -19 cases in the country climb to record highs due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. The move delivers another blow to the cruise industry that had just started returning to the seas in June after a months-long suspension of voyages caused by the pandemic. The CDC on Thursday raised its COVID -19 travel health notice level for cruise ships to its highest warning level, citing reports of COVID -19 outbreaks on cruises .

For cruise lines that opt-in to the CDC’s voluntary program, safety practices on board ships will largely remain unchanged. According to the CDC, the participating ships will continue to follow its public health guidelines, including case reporting, testing, and infection prevention and control. Individual ships will also receive a color-coded ranking—either green, yellow, orange, or red—based on the number of positive cases on board.

Cruise lines operating in the U.S. first began following the CDC’s conditional sailing order in the summer of 2021. The order was part of a “phased approach” implemented by the CDC to get ships sailing again after the agency’s ban on voyages expired in late 2020. (The mandatory protocols only applied to foreign-flagged cruise ships operating international itineraries; certain smaller river cruises operating within the U.S. were still allowed to operate throughout the ban.) As ships were once again preparing to leave ports, the CDC order required cruise lines to test passengers before they boarded ships, establish on-board laboratories for testing, and prove the ability to minimize the spread of the virus should a person on board test positive. By following these steps and a certification process, cruise lines were allowed to reinstate passenger voyages.

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CDC recommends delaying international travel until you are fully vaccinated. When you travel to the U.S. by air, you are required to show a negative COVID -19 test or documentation of recovery. Follow all requirements of conveyance operators (such as airlines, cruise lines , buses) as well as any requirements at your destinationexternal icon, whether traveling by air, land, or sea, including mask wearing, proof of vaccination, testing, or quarantine. Requirements may differ from U.S. requirements.

"Time for CDC & cruise lines to protect consumers & again pause—docking their ships," Blumenthal tweeted. The CDC is investigating 86 cruise ships for COVID outbreaks. Of that, 32 are Carnival, 25 Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, and 15 Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. The CDC 's website said four Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Cruise Line are now under watch. Cruise ships were once lauded as one of the safest vacations due to their strict health policies of only allowing vaxxed adults and their ability to isolate from the rest of the "dangerous" world.

As the Delta variant spread through 2021, the order was extended to January 15, 2022. Although cases of the Omicron variant are currently surging in most parts of the U.S., the CDC seems confident that most operators will opt in and follow the recommended guidelines. Even while still under the sailing order, many cruise lines including Disney, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean had already enacted policies that went beyond the CDC’s guidelines, such as making vaccinations mandatory for those who are eligible and requiring masks while indoors onboard the ship.

The transition to a voluntary program “recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry,” Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group representing ship operators around the world, said in a recent release.

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Learn more at CDC COVID -19 Orders for Cruise Ships. CDC will update these instructions for cruise ships as needed to reflect the state of the pandemic and notify cruise lines when these instructions are updated. [1] All commercial, non-cargo, foreign-flagged, passenger-carrying vessels operating in international, interstate, or intrastate waterways and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States with the capacity to carry 250 or more individuals (passengers and crew) with an itinerary anticipating an overnight stay on board or a twenty-four (24) hour stay on board for either passengers

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Several cruise lines have already expressed their commitment to the new voluntary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced that its three brands—Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises—notified the CDC of their decision to opt-in.

Cruise lines that choose to opt-out of the new program will not have complete freedom over safety protocols, as all ships—regardless of participation status—will still be regulated by the CDC. This means these ships will still receive inspections, continue to be subject to the federal mask order for public transportation, and be compelled to report any cases onboard. Non-participating cruises will also have their CDC color-coded travel recommendation status updated to gray, which signifies an unknown level of COVID cases.

Before booking or embarking on a cruise, passengers should check that they are comfortable with the ship's health protocols, as well as the COVID situation in any ports of call. Travelers can also find a list of the ships the CDC is monitoring on the agency's site.

The expiration of the sailing order comes on the heels of the CDC updating its COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level for cruise ship travel from a Level 3 to Level 4, the highest risk category. Several cruise lines have recently suspended voyages due to onboard cases of the Omicron variant. The CDC asks cruise lines to opt-in to the voluntary program by January 21.

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