The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the stage for the return of U.S. cruising with the release Friday of a detailed series of requirements that could put ships back in operation in the coming months.
The decision from the CDC to let its no-sail order expire in exchange for a conditional sail order is a win for the Florida-based cruise industry, which has been paralyzed since it shut down passenger operations on March 13 amid COVID-19 outbreaks on several ships. Still, cruise companies will have to prove to the agency that COVID protocols are working with specific testing requirements and trial runs before passengers can return.
Most cruise companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages — have canceled all cruises leaving from U.S. ports until at least Dec. 1. Companies are promoting protocols they say will limit much of the evacuations, stranded ships and death the industry experienced in the spring once cruising resumes, like testing for all passengers, but have not yet announced what kind of testing.
Looming over the CDC decision is the fast approaching Nov. 3 election. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to listen to scientists when crafting his response to the COVID-19 pandemic if he wins the White House. Last month, the Trump administration overruled scientists at the CDC who wanted to ban cruises until February 2021 in favor of extending the no-sail order just one additional month, until Oct. 31.
The CDC still has its Level 3 travel notice for cruise ships in place, which warns against anyone taking a cruise because of the high risk of COVID-19 infection on ships. The agency first put the notice in place on March 8, nearly one week before cruise companies decided to shut down passenger operations amid outbreaks on several ships.
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At stake is the $7 billion cruise economy linked to PortMiami and thousands of people left unemployed because of the ban. With Washington D.C. deadlocked over a second COVID-19 relief bill, and Florida’s decision to end federal aid for the state’s jobless, the longshoremen, shuttle drivers, travel planners and others who make the industry run are receiving at most $275 per week.
Ahead of the CDC’s Friday release, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he thinks cruising can be done safely and is working with the White House to get cruises restarted. Last week, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez attended a rally with PortMiami workers urging the CDC to let the no-sail order expire. Both argue that since companies Carnival Corp. and MSC Cruises have restarted cruises in Italy, they should be able to restart in the U.S. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Miami-Dade county are on the rise.
Cruise companies told Miami-Dade commissioners last month that the CDC has been unresponsive to their efforts to get cruises going again after first instituting its ban in mid-March. The CDC said it has dedicated two staff members to work with each cruise company and 38,000 work hours from mid-March to July 10 to try to curb COVID-19 outbreaks on laid-up cruise ships which at times overwhelmed the Coast Guard with medical evacuation requests.
In June, Carnival Corp., the largest cruise company in the world, removed all of its cruise ships from U.S. waters, partly due to a disagreement with the CDC about how best to mitigate COVID-19 spread at sea. By the time the CDC’s public scorecard for ship infections debuted on its website, the company was no longer reporting on board illnesses to the CDC, a requirement only for ships in U.S. waters.
Crew members are still contracting COVID-19 on cruise ships as the industry remains shut down.
This is a developing story that will be updated.