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CDC shuts down its COVID-19 program for cruise ships

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Carnival Cruise Line ship

The Carnival Cruise Line ship Mardi Gras docks at Terminal 3 at Port Canaveral, Florida, on June 4, 2021.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has officially ended its COVID-19 program for cruise ships.

The program was voluntary — though cruise lines couldn’t exactly decline to opt-in. It had replaced the CDC’s previous Conditional Sailing Order back in February of this year.

Cruise lines operating in U.S. waters were compelled to strictly adhere to the COVID-19 program for cruise ships' guidance in order to prove they were upholding best practices for the mitigation of COVID-19 aboard their vessels.

It laid out the acceptable guidelines for passenger vaccination requirements, testing protocols and masking rules, as well as onboard isolation protocols and the parameters for onboard medical facilities.

In an online update, the CDC announced that it will instead, “publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for passengers, crew and communities going forward.”

Effectively, this means that the CDC will provide health and safety recommendations for the cruise industry in the same way it currently provides them for other travel sectors. This brings a welcome end to the days of the cruise sector being singled out by authorities and designated as a higher-risk mode of travel.

The Cruise Lines International Association, which welcomed the news, released a statement following the announcement:

"We look forward to reviewing the details, which we understand will be posted on the CDC website in the coming days. This is an important step forward in the CDC aligning the guidelines for cruise with those it has established for other travel, hospitality, and entertainment sectors."

The sunsetting of the CDC program effective 18 July 2022 is a testament to the effectiveness of the industry’s comprehensive and robust protocols," the statement continued. "In fact, cruising has become one of the safest forms of travel and among the most successful industries in mitigating the spread and severity of COVID-19, resulting in few passengers or crew becoming seriously ill or requiring hospitalization compared to hospital statistics for landside patients."

“I am somewhat conflicted about this happening,” John Maddox, owner of Tropical Getaways Travel said in reaction to the news. “I am thrilled that the days of the cruise lines being treated unfairly are hopefully over. I am hopeful that pre-cruise testing, which has been a source of anxiety for many, will be phased out.”

But, like many cruisegoers, he would still like to have confidence that the cruise lines are continuing to practice the highest degree of health and safety measures. After all, the pandemic may have transitioned to a new phase, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. “I do hope the vaccine mandate continues for a while longer,” Maddox added.

It’s important to note that cruise lines haven’t changed any of their COVID-related protocols just yet, so travelers shouldn’t assume they can forgo pre-departure testing or vaccination requirements. In the absence of the CDC’s program, measures for mitigating the disease’s spread will now be left up to the cruise companies to decide for themselves.

Maddox expressed some doubts about the wisdom of dropping the CDC’s program entirely. “I do have pause with the cruise lines and their history of not being as transparent as possible in many areas,” he said. “Customers deserve to know information about cases onboard to make a personal health decision as to whether or not they will be comfortable sailing."

In response to that particular concern, the CDC wrote in the FAQs section of its web page, “Cruise travelers have the option of contacting their cruise line directly regarding outbreaks occurring on board their ship.”

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