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CDC outlines path for US cruising to resume by mid-July

By HANNAH SAMPSON | The Washington Post | Published: April 29, 2021

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After weeks of pushback from the cruise industry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday detailed a pathway for U.S. cruising to resume by mid-July. And, as with most travel guidelines in the pandemic era, vaccinations will be key.

The CDC said ships will be able to skip "simulated" test voyages — one of the requirements in the agency's conditional sailing order (CSO) for trips to resume — if the cruise line can attest that at least 98% of the crew and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated. That would allow cruise operators to bypass a time-consuming step on the way to returning to sea with paying passengers.

The public health agency's new parameters came in a letter to industry executives that was obtained by The Washington Post. The letter followed twice-a-week meetings that officials from cruise lines and the CDC have been holding since April 12.

"During these discussions, individual cruise line representatives were able to express their concerns as to the pace and phases of the CSO, ask questions related to the implementation of the CSO, and reiterate their desire to resume cruising as soon as possible," the CDC said in its letter.

Cruise operators have been pressuring the federal government to allow them to resume sailings from the United States by early July, after having been shut down in March 2020. Many have announced plans to set sail with Americans from nearby ports in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, or in Europe, with vaccination requirements for everyone — or at least every adult passenger — on board. The CDC had earlier recommended that passengers, crew and port workers be vaccinated.

"We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity and that the goal of the CSO's phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities," the CDC's letter said.

In addition to the ability to circumvent test cruises, the agency laid out four other "clarifications" to its conditional sailing order. Among them: Fully vaccinated people will now be able to take a simpler test, such as an antigen test, when they embark, and local passengers who need to self-quarantine on shore may now pass that time at home if they live within driving distance. The CDC also said that if cruise lines run simulated voyages, it will review and respond to applications for those sailings within five days instead of 60.

"This puts cruise ships closer to open water sailing sooner," CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said in a statement.

The statement said the CDC urged cruise lines to submit documentation about port agreements as soon as they can, to make it possible to resume voyages by mid-July.

"CDC remains committed to the resumption of passenger operations in the United States following the requirements in the CSO by mid-summer, which aligns with the goals announced by many major cruise lines and travelers," Shockey said.

The Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group, was "encouraged" by the message, spokeswoman Bari Golin-Blaugrund said in a statement.

"We are optimistic that these clarifications show positive progression — and, importantly, a demonstrated commitment to constructive dialogue, which is key to restarting cruising as we have seen with other governments and health authorities around the world," she said. But "plenty of work" is left, Golin-Blaugrund added, to resume cruising responsibly from U.S. ports this summer.

In a business update Thursday morning, Royal Caribbean Group chairman and CEO Richard Fain described conversations with the CDC in recent weeks as "constructive" and referred to the agency's letter that addressed the industry's "uncertainties and concerns."

"They have dealt with many of these items in a constructive manner that takes into account recent advances in vaccines and medical science," Fain said in a statement. "Although this is only part of a very complex process, it encourages us that we now see a pathway to a healthy and achievable return to service."