Cruises will remain banned, CDC says, as industry pressure to restart heats up

A sports fisherman passes the Disney Cruise Line ships on the horizon as they sit stationary off of Cocoa Beach, Florida in this view from Lori Wilson Park, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Despite increasing pressure from the cruise industry and its allies in government, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to prevent cruises from U.S. ports for the foreseeable future. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
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Taylor Dolven Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — Despite increasing pressure from the cruise industry and its allies in government, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to prevent cruises from U.S. ports for the foreseeable future.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, and the cruise industry lobbying group CLIA are pressuring the CDC to allow U.S. cruises as soon as July 1. But the agency is not budging on its “conditional sail order,” which gives cruise companies a long list of requirements they must meet before being allowed to restart.

The government officials say the conditional sail order, first issued by the CDC in October and in place until November 2021, is outdated and unnecessary now that several COVID-19 vaccines are available.

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“I urge the CDC to immediately rescind this baseless no-sail order to allow Floridians in this industry to get back to work,” said DeSantis at a press conference at Port Canaveral Friday.

He joins Levine Cava, who sent a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky last week, saying she would welcome guidance from the CDC allowing cruises by July for only vaccinated passengers and crew. Around 60,000 South Floridians work directly or indirectly for the cruise industry.

Earlier this month, CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey said a majority, but not all, of the six cruise companies with ships in U.S. waters had complied with the first phase of the order: Test all crew members for COVID-19 weekly and report results to the agency.

In response to Cruise Lines International Association’s public demands Thursday that the conditional sail order be lifted, Shockey said the order remains in effect.

“On October 30, 2020, CDC issued Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) that remains in effect until November 1, 2021,” she said in an email. “Returning to passenger cruising is a phased approach to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Details for the next phase of the CSO are currently under interagency review.”

The CDC first banned cruises in U.S. waters in March 2020 amid COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple ships. After extensive lobbying from the industry, it lifted its no-sail order on October 30, replacing it with the conditional sail order. In November, the CDC added instructions for lab testing, and in December it expanded the list of tests cruise companies can use.

Since then, crew members have continued to test positive for the virus at sea. Thirty-three cruise ships in U.S. waters have reported crew members testing positive for COVID-19 or having COVID-like illness (clinically compatible without laboratory confirmation) since the start of the year, according to CDC documents obtained by the Herald.

In a statement Thursday, CLIA, the cruise industry’s lobbying group, urged the CDC to allow cruising by July, noting that cruises have long resumed in other parts of the world including Singapore, China and Italy, hosting nearly 400,000 passengers since the pandemic began with minimal COVID-19 outbreaks.

“This is a testament to the industry’s unparalleled expertise, gained over more than half a century, in coordinating movements of guests and crew, efficiently organizing complex embarkations and excursions, and designing vessels that are more technologically advanced and operationally agile than any other mode of transportation,” said Kelly Craighead, the group’s CEO, in a statement.

Dr. Michael Callahan, director of the Clinical Translation, Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who worked with Japanese health authorities to care for and evacuate sick passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess cruise ship last February, said in an interview Friday it is too soon to be resuming U.S. cruises. He wants the industry to wait until the vaccines are rolled out, more is known about the new COVID virus variants, and quicker, better tests come on the market.

Over the last three weeks, the U.S. has recorded about 55,000 cases a day, the same number of people who tested positive in a record-setting day last July.

“We’re not at the ninth inning, we’re in the third inning,” Callahan said, citing spikes in COVID-19 cases even in well-vaccinated areas, and new virus variants that may be able to permeate the immunity. “The risk is escalating. It’s a race between our vaccine, the only thing we have going for us, and … the desire of businesses to get back to business thinking that the vaccine is going to bail them out.”

Cruise companies tired of waiting for the CDC go-ahead are inviting U.S. residents to fly to the Caribbean for cruises there this summer. Royal Caribbean Group will begin seven-night cruises from The Bahamas and St. Maarten to Mexico, Tortola, St. Lucia, Aruba, Curaçao and Barbados in June, followed by Crystal Cruises in The Bahamas in July.

Royal Caribbean Group will require crew and passengers over 18 to be vaccinated, and Crystal Cruises will require all passengers to be vaccinated. Neither company plans to comply with many of the rules outlined in the CDC’s order, including PCR testing for all passengers and crew on embarkation and disembarkation days, publicizing CDC cruise travel warnings in all marketing materials, and ending cruises immediately in the case of an outbreak.

Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy said the company does not have plans to restart cruises outside of the U.S. in a video address Friday. The company has not yet decided if it will require vaccines.

Cruise industry analysts say the biggest three cruise companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — have raised enough cash to last another 15 cruise-less months.

The CDC currently has a Level 4 warning against cruise travel — the agency’s highest — and “recommends that all people avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises, worldwide, because the risk of COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high.”

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