It’s About Time!

As we posted yesterday, the CDC has finally announced their intention to let their No Sail Order, which expires today, do just that. Expire. It is a hard fought and much overdue victory for the cruise lines, who have been working diligently behind the scenes to prepare for this. The CDC has issued a follow-on order which they have titled, “Framework for conditional sailing and initial phase COVID-19 testing requirements for protection of crew.” Whew that’s a mouthful and my grammar checker locked up about halfway through. In any event, the order officially goes into effect on November 1st, after being formally published in the Federal Registry.

I’ve poured through the 40-page order and picked out a few things of interest that I want to share with you. I also want to share some specifics about what you can expect if you plan to cruise anytime in the next 6-12 months. The CDC’s order is chock-a-block full of things the cruise lines will have to do before the CDC signs off on any ship taking on passengers, but nothing in the CDC’s order presents insurmountable challenges.

The cruise lines will need to get all crew members freshly tested for COVID-19 and make arrangements for them to be retested every week. In addition to testing, crew members new to a ship will be required to undergo a 14 day quarantine before assuming their duties. Everything the CDC requires, the cruise lines have been preparing for and will begin rolling out between now and the first sailings in December As we learn more of the details we’ll be sure to share them with you.

Cruise lines will take a phased approach as they resume sailing with passengers. The CDC requires a phased approach, but the cruise lines were planning on that anyway based on their own COVID-19 risk mitigation and management planning. Cruise lines will start with a limited number of ships in December sailing limited itineraries to identify and make any necessary adjustments to keep passengers safe. The focus of the first few sailings will be making sure they get the onboard experience right with limited port calls. You can expect early sailings to be limited to calls in U.S. ports like Key West and St. Thomas, Mexico, and The Bahamas including the cruise lines’ private islands. After that, cruise ships will place more of their focus on itineraries and expanding shore excursion options. The CDC is limiting cruise duration to no more than 7 days initially, but the order contains provisions for the CDC to adjust the cruise duration to shorter or longer cruises based on public health considerations.

When it comes to the risk of contracting COVID-19, the cruise lines’ goal has been to keep the risk lower than it would be for any similar land-based activity, not to try to eliminate the risk completely. That would be impossible and even though the CDC might expect that, the cruise lines know better. Their risk plans look impressive to me, but you always have to keep an eye out for passenger behavior that could put you at risk and avoid those situations. At initial embarkation passengers will be required to show negative COVID-19 tests within 5 days of sailing, as well as go through enhanced medical screening to include temperature and medical history checks. There is always a chance the COVID-19 test passengers get will present false negative results, or that someone will have been exposed to the virus after being tested, but the cruise lines are prepared for that and have protocols in place to limit that risk should it arise.

Risk increases anytime a ship makes a port call and passengers are allowed to disembark. That is one reason why port calls and shore excursions will be limited initially, and passenger disembarkation rigidly controlled. You won’t be allowed to get off the ship and go out on your own…you’ll have to book a shore excursion through the cruise line. For their part, the cruise lines will be carefully scrutinizing the shore excursions and the suppliers that run them to ensure compliance with the CDC’s requirements. Several individuals and families chose to leave their tour group on Europe base cruises (the European Union approved a return to sailing several weeks ago), and each time it happened the offenders were left dockside to find their own ride home. There is a zero-tolerance policy on this from both the CDC and the cruise lines. There will also be enhanced medical screening for passengers before they are allowed to return to the ship. The specific mechanics of how that happens are still being developed by the cruise lines.

The cruise lines will also be limiting the number of ships they bring back to service, in part because of the process they have to go through to certify them with the CDC. Some ships will need extended refit time before meeting CDC requirements and you can expect those to be kept out of service until that work can be completed. Cruise lines will also be carefully watching demand to ensure they don’t bring too many ships back too soon. As it is, most ships will be limited to 50-60% capacity until an effective COVID-19 vaccination is widely deployed.

The CDC is requiring social distancing in all public areas on board each ship. Rather than throwing yellow crime tape over chairs or taping tacky white paper signs to seat backs that say “Don’t Sit Here” I expect cruise lines to remove chairs and tables wherever possible and put them storage. They will reconfigure the remaining furniture in public spaces to accommodate social distancing. The theaters and lounges with fixed seating anchored to the deck will present a different challenge but will likely be managed with decorative cloth seat coverings that can be moved to accommodate families and groups traveling together and living on the ship within the same bubble.

Perhaps the most noticeable changes will be in the dining experience. In addition to tables being more spaced out, we are hearing that dining room staffs will only seat people together who are traveling together. You can expect fewer 6-8 person tables and more two and four person tables instead. At this point it is unclear to what extent, and through what mechanism, the cruise lines will be able to accommodate larger groups traveling together and in the same bubble. It is also unclear how the cruise lines will handle people traveling alone, but most likely they will be seated by themselves. Another of the unknowns is how dining room staffs will handle freestyle or anytime dining when people get to know other passengers as the cruise goes on and want to start dining together.

One of the most noticeable changes for past cruisers will be the elimination of the traditional self-service dining buffet. Some cruise ships are doing away with buffets entirely, but most ships will keep them in a COVID-19 friendly form. Some ships will rely on the dining room staff to serve passengers at each buffet station. We’ve experienced this on a few of our cruises and it actually works quite well. Other cruise ships will convert their buffets to grab and go dining, where buffet items are individually wrapped or packaged in a sanitary manner and diners can grab them as they pass through the buffet stations.

Masks are required in all public spaces. Period. If you don’t comply, or if you habitually fail to observe proper social distancing, you can expect to be physically confined to your cabin until you can be kicked off the ship at the earliest opportunity. Cruise ship staffs won’t be taking these extreme measures because they know the CDC is looking over their shoulder, though the CDC will be. No…cruise lines have been told to do this by their own expert consultants.

Janet and I make the point any and every time we talk about travel, and in particular cruising, that there is risk. COVID-19 is one wicked infectious virus, and everyone should consider their personal risk tolerance and even check with your doctor before making the decision to book or go ahead with a cruise. For me and Janet it isn’t a concern…we aren’t in any high-risk group, we know the steps the cruise lines are taking, and we know we will be taking our own precautions such as wearing masks in public and avoiding large gatherings like the bars. But cruise we will, and we hope to see some of you get back to cruising as well!

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