The Devil Is In The Details

As I posted to our Facebook page earlier today (Europe time), the CDC announced they are terminating their COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. Before anybody gets too excited about what that might mean, as always with the CDC the devil is in the details. Back in the spring when the CDC announced the end of their no sail order to much fanfare and with a nice press release, they did so without providing details on the “what’s next”. Not long after that press release the CDC quietly informed the cruise lines, with no fanfare, the “what’s next” and it was far more arduous and restrictive than they expected. So…now that the CDC just announced they are ending that program, it begs the question…what’s next?

In announcing the end to their COVID-19 program for cruise ships, the CDC noted the following: “New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days.” You’ll forgive me for being a bit cynical here, but that caution to stay tuned for details hasn’t ended well for the cruise lines when it comes to COVID. Still, this time I find myself cautiously optimistic. The CDC is finally saying they believe the cruise industry is in the best position to self-regulate when it comes to COVID risk mitigation and management on cruise ships. We will see in the coming days whether the CDC really means that, or if they have even more mischief up their sleeves.

In the FAQs that accompanied the announcement about the program’s termination, the CDC noted the following, “While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, the CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward.” That is the softest risk statement regarding COVID and the cruise industry the CDC has issued to date. If they limit their guidance to advisory, the cruise lines will be able to get back to implementing their own restrictions for passengers regarding COVID as they have all along, quite effectively, for other infectious diseases such as Norovirus. But the devil is in the details.

Nothing will change immediately. Cruise ships are sailing at capacity even under the current regime of restrictions the CDC appears to be ending. The first thing I expect to see in the near term is elimination of pre-cruise COVID testing requirements. Most cruise lines have already eliminated the test requirements for sailings that don’t come under the CDC’s regulatory authority, in embarkation ports where COVID testing is no longer required by the host government.

As much as you and I may dislike the hassle of getting a COVID test before embarking on a cruise, it has been a real burden on the on the cruise industry. Now that the CDC doesn’t require testing for international travelers entering the U.S., it is hard to see any scenario where testing will continue to be a requirement for cruising. That change will likely come soon…possibly very soon. If you have a cruise booked through us, we’ll be in touch once we learn of any changes.

Eliminating the test requirement does not mean COVID will magically disappear as a risk to cruisers. If anything, the risk will increase a bit. Imperfect though it has been, pre-embarkation testing has kept at least some COVID positive passengers from boarding. That increased risk will matter to some cruisers, but I don’t think it will matter to most since it merely puts the risk on par with the risk you face when flying to the port to catch your ship. Or going to the grocery store. Or using the drive-thru window at your favorite fast-food establishment.

The one requirement that won’t be so quick to fall will be the CDC mandate that cruise ships sail with only vaccinated passengers. I expect the cruise lines to be more cautious about eliminating the vaccination requirement, at least until the fall and winter cruise season. Even if the CDC eliminates their COVID vaccination requirement for cruise ships, the cruise lines are still bound by the vaccination mandates imposed by the ports they visit, but those too have been dropping fast. Barring any major change in the virus, it is possible the vaccine requirement for passengers will be eliminated if not by the fall/winter cruising season, then almost certainly in time for spring of 2023. I expect the cruise lines will continue to require their crew to be fully vaccinated.

It looks like COVID is with us forever. Testing hasn’t contained it, mask mandates haven’t contained it, and vaccine mandates haven’t contained it. All of those are still good measures to take to protect yourself, particularly if you are in a higher risk group. COVID seems to have entered a phase where the severity of illness is on par with the cold and flu, still deadly for some but a tolerable nuisance for most.

Perhaps the most telling development will be this fall when the latest batch of bivalent COVID boosters become available with more targeted protection against the newer Omicron variants. If that proves to be as effective as hoped, then cruising may be no riskier with COVID than it is with the other seasonal illnesses cruisers have to contend with. Get vaccinated, get boosted with the bivalent vaccine this fall, wear N95 masks when you fly or in crowds, and you will be as protected on a cruise ship as you are anywhere else.

This latest CDC action could be the best news for the cruise industry in a long time. Yes, the devil is still in the details, and yes, the risk will still be there for some. But for the first time since March of 2020, I am optimistic. If you have been waiting to cruise, frustrated either by the testing or vaccination requirements, I think it is safe to start thinking about your next cruise. It may be a tad too early to book something if you are unvaccinated, but that day is coming, and it is coming soon.

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