BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Friday issued its next phase of technical guidance under its framework for conditional sailing order for cruise lines, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
But it remains unclear when cruises actually will be able to resume. Major cruise lines have not sailed in the United States since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said he is “disappointed that this guidance for the cruise industry appears to be nothing more than an incremental step in a far-reaching process to resume passenger sailings in the U.S., with no definitive or target start date.”
The latest phase of the order requires cruise lines to establish agreements at ports where they intend to operate; implement routine testing of crew; and develop plans incorporating vaccination strategies to reduce the risk of introduction and spread of COVID-19 by crew and passengers.
The CDC said this phase — the second of the conditional sail order issued in October 2020 — provides technical instructions on:
- Increasing from weekly to daily the reporting frequency of COVID-19 cases and illnesses.
- Implementing routine testing of all crew based on each ship’s status.
- Updating the color-coding system used to classify ships’ status with respect to COVID-19.
- Decreasing the time needed for a “red” ship to become “green” from 28 to 14 days, based on the availability of onboard testing, routine screening testing protocols and daily reporting.
- Creating planning materials for agreements that port authorities and local health authorities must approve to ensure cruise lines have the necessary infrastructure in place to manage an outbreak of COVID-19 on their ships, including health care capacity and housing to isolate infected people and quarantine those who are exposed.
- Establishing a plan and timeline for vaccination of crew and port personnel.
The CDC said the next phase of the conditional sailing order will include simulated trial voyages that will allow crew and port personnel to practice new COVID-19 operational procedures with volunteers before sailing with passengers.
But Murray said he was expecting more at this point from the CDC, which initially issued a no-sail order in March 2020, then replaced it with a conditional sail order in October.
“For a year now, we have been working closely with our cruise partners and directly with the CDC to find a way forward for the return of cruising from Port Canaveral,” Murray said.
He noted that the CDC on Friday also announced that vaccinated Americans could safely travel, including internationally.
The CDC said that “given recent studies evaluating the real-world effects of vaccination, CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves. A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last recommended dose of vaccine.”
Port Canaveral had been the world’s second-busiest cruise port, behind PortMiami, based on passenger volume. Carnival, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean had ships based at Port Canaveral, and MSC Cruises was planning to join that lineup last fall.
Murray said Port Canaveral has lost $87.6 million in cruise-related revenue from March 2020 through February 2021. Pre-pandemic, cruises and cruise-related parking accounted for about 80% of the port’s revenue.
CDC: We’ll work with cruise lines
In a statement, the CDC said it is “committed to working with the cruise industry and seaport partners to resume cruising when it is safe to do so, following the phased approach outlined in the conditional sailing order.”
“COVID-19 vaccination efforts will be critical in the safe resumption of passenger operations,” the CDC said. “As more people are fully vaccinated, the phased approach allows CDC to incorporate these advancements into planning for resumption of cruise ship travel when it is safe to do so.”
The CDC recommended that all eligible port personnel, cruise passengers and crew get a COVID-19 vaccine when one is available to them.
“Cruising safely and responsibly during a global pandemic is difficult,” the CDC said. “While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, following the phases of the conditional sailing order will ensure cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern.”
The CDC said it will “continue to update its guidance and recommendations to specify basic safety standards and public health interventions, based on the best scientific evidence available.”
Elected officials want action
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and U.S. Rep. Bill Posey — whose congressional district includes Port Canaveral — in recent weeks all urged the CDC to clear the path for a return to sailing out of U.S. ports.
During a March 26 roundtable discussion at Port Canaveral on the cruise industry shutdown, DeSantis and Moody said the state will consider legal action to force the resumption of cruises if the federal government continues to delay the process.
On March 24, the Cruise Lines International Association — which represents 95% of global ocean-going cruise capacity — called on the CDC to lift its framework for conditional sailing order, and allow for the planning of a phased resumption of cruise operations from U.S. ports by the beginning of July.
CLIA said the early-July time frame is in line with President Joe Biden’s forecast for when the United States will be “closer to normal.”
“Over the past eight months, a highly controlled resumption of cruising has continued in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific — with nearly 400,000 passengers sailing to date in more than 10 major cruise markets,” CLIA President and Chief Executive Officer Kelly Craighead said in a statement. “These voyages were successfully completed with industry-leading protocols that have effectively mitigated the spread of COVID-19. Additional sailings are planned in the Mediterranean and Caribbean later this spring and summer.”
Craighead said the conditional sailing order was outdated, and did not “reflect the industry’s proven advancements and success operating in other parts of the world, nor the advent of vaccines, and unfairly treats cruises differently.”
She said cruise lines “should be treated the same as other travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors. Cruising is the only sector of the U.S. economy that remains prohibited, even as most others have opened or continued to operate throughout the pandemic.”
According to CLIA, restarting cruises as part of the broader travel industry “will provide a much-needed boost to the U.S. economy.”
Financial, job impacts
CLIA estimated that the cruise industry supported nearly 450,000 American jobs and contributed more than $55.5 billion annually, prior to the pandemic.
Based on economic modeling by research firm BREA, more than 300,000 jobs have been lost in the United States because of the suspension of cruises.
“The majority of those impacted are independent business owners or individuals employed by small- to medium-sized businesses — including travel agents, taxi drivers, port employees, baggage handlers and longshoremen, as well as airline, hotel and restaurant workers,” CLIA said in a statement.
Locally, Port Canaveral has reduced its staff by 43% — from 268 positions to 153. That was done through a combination of 68 permanent layoffs, 17 unpaid furloughs, and not filling 30 positions that were left vacant because of retirement or employees taking jobs elsewhere.
Those figures do not include the Port Canaveral-based unionized longshoremen who are out of work. They are not port employees, but work at the port loading and unloading baggage and supplies from cruise ships.
On March 30, U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow issued a statement encouraging “the phased resumption of cruise operations as quickly as possible.”
“The standard of evidence should be exceptionally high for rules that effectively single out certain industries as other parts of the economy are allowed to reopen,” Dow said. “Restrictions have taken a disproportionately heavy toll on the travel industry and our millions of workers, and the rule preventing cruise operations is uniquely specific. It is economically imperative to find the pathways to reopening, and the evidence is clear that a layered approach to health and safety allows the safe resumption of travel.”
Although some cruise lines have announced a few sailings catering to those who have received COVID-19 vaccinations, CLIA says it currently does not have a policy related to vaccines.
“The organization and its members are exploring a workable approach for how to consider vaccinations, once widely available, as part of robust protocols,” CLIA said in a statement.
About 30.7% of people in the United States, or 101.80 million people, have received at least one COVID-19 shot, according to CDC data. About 17.5% of people, or 57.98 million, are fully vaccinated, with either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
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