Thank DeSantis: CDC oks return of cruise ships sailing by mid-summer

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has given the ok for cruise lines to sail from U.S. ports in mid-July. There are conditions that must be met but the good news for people eager to get back on a cruise ship is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I admit that cruising is not for me but millions of people love to vacation with a cruise. Cruise lines were among the first to feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the travel industry. Cruises were canceled and cruise ships were not allowed to depart from U.S. ports. In October the industry was put under a conditional sail order. The order requires operators to conduct test cruises with the help of volunteer passengers. Then they can apply for a certificate before they begin passenger cruises again.

The CDC sent a letter this week to the cruise industry announcing that cruising from American ports will start back up by mid-July – without restrictions. No more test cruises will be necessary if they have proof that their crew members and passengers are fully vaccinated.

Cruises could resume from American ports by mid-July without restrictions if operators can guarantee that almost all of the crew and passengers have received a COVID-19 vaccine, according to media reports.

Cruise lines have been in limbo for more than a year due to safety measures related to the pandemic. In a letter to the cruise industry on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said operators can begin sailing without test cruises if they can show that 98% of crew members and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated.

I’m getting a show-us-your-vaccine passport vibe here. That’s the reality, though. How else does a cruise line “prove” that either crew members or customers are fully vaccinated? This is why the CDC is criticized for poor communication skills. Throughout the pandemic, messages have been mixed at best and people are often confused. In April, the CDC said it was safe for vaccinated people to travel but recommended everyone stay home for the time being. Masks are still recommended when traveling and airlines are continuing to keep mask mandates in place for now. The TSA announced Friday that it extended a federal requirement that travelers on buses, trains, commercial flights, and at airports wear face masks.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is refusing to go along with any mandates on vaccine passports. He sued the federal government over the cruise shutdown. Florida is wide open and DeSantis wants cruise line jobs to come back after a year of the shutdown. Since October, the CDC has blocked cruise ships that carry more than 250 people from sailing in U.S. waters. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the CDC issued a “Conditional Sail Order” last week 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.” DeSantis said the CDC was being “unreasonable” and “not rational” with that order. Cruisers are going to cruise and other locations instead of American ports will get the business. He noted that Florida is the number one place in the world from which to cruise.

Health officials and cruise industry operators were holding twice-weekly meetings recently to reach an agreement on lifting the ban on cruises. The cruise industry lobbied the CDC last month to lift the conditional sail order, calling the restrictions “outdated”, as did DeSantis. The CDC also changed quarantine and testing requirements. Cruise passengers can now take a rapid antigen test upon boarding a cruise ship rather than a lab test.

The CDC doesn’t acknowledge the legal action brought by DeSantis but instead says the letter sent this week giving the ok to get back to business is part of what was already planned by major cruise lines. It seems to me that DeSantis should receive a pat on the back from those who are eager to get back to traveling by cruising for poking the government into acting. With more and more Americans fully vaccinated, it’s a reasonable thing to do. A lot of cruise activity, I’ve been told, involves time on deck in the fresh air. Passengers don’t have to remain indoors all the time.

As far as the past requirement of test cruises goes, if a cruise operator still opts to do test cruises, the CDC pledged to respond to applications within five days instead of the two-month timeframe now commonly used.

“We acknowledge that cruising will never be a zero-risk activity and that the goal of the [sail order’s] phased approach is to resume passenger operations in a way that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard cruise ships and across port communities,” Aimee Treffiletti, head of the Maritime Unit for CDC’s COVID-19 response, said in the letter, according to The New York Times.

“[The] CDC looks forward to continued engagement with the industry and urges cruise lines to submit Phase 2A port agreements as soon as possible to maintain the timeline of passenger voyages by mid-July,” CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey told USA Today.

Cruise operators also may dock at multiple ports rather than a single port, as long as all ports and local authorities agree, the CDC said.

It’s some hopeful news for travelers ready to take a cruise. If all goes as planned, the industry should be on the upswing by mid-July. It will be interesting to see what happens about proof of vaccination requirements when it does.