CDC’s COVID-19 ‘Conditional Sailing Order’ For Cruise Operators Expires

Effective January 15, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has allowed its COVID-era guidelines for cruise lines—the agency’s “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order” (CSO)—to expire. The move came just two weeks after issuing a Level 4 COVID-19 Travel Health Notice that called on travelers to “avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status.”

The CSO, first put in place in November 2020, established guidelines and operational requirements for cruise operators to begin sailing again. The order spanned vaccine and pre-embarkation testing requirements, on-board surveillance and protocols during cruises. In response, cruise lines put in place rigorous requirements for passengers and crew members, including requiring vaccinations against COVID-19, and ships began returning to sailing last summer.

Now, with the CSO expired, cruise operators carrying more than 250 passengers (the threshold for CDC oversight) may choose whether to continue following the framework or plot their own course. With the CDC now referring to its CSO guidelines as “voluntary” post-January 15, though, representatives from the cruise industry have claimed that as tacit endorsement of their COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

In a statement, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said the transition of the CSO to a voluntary program “recognizes the cruise industry’s unwavering commitment to providing some of the highest levels of COVID-19 mitigation found in any industry.” CLIA highlighted the fact that close to 100 percent of passengers and crew alike are required to be vaccinated prior to boarding cruise ships, compared to 63 percent of the general population in the United States. Likewise, every person boarding a cruise ship must present a recent negative COVID test.

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“When cases are identified as a result of the high frequency of testing onboard, cruise ship protocols help to maximize onboard containment with rapid response procedures designed to safeguard all other guests and crew as well as the communities that the ships visit,” CLIA continued. “Further, cruise is the only sector that continuously monitors, collects and reports case information directly to the CDC.”

And while the incidence of infection and illness remains low on board cruise ships relative to communities on shore, cruise lines will continue to aggressively mitigate against the spread of COVID-19 at sea, CLIA said.

“CLIA ocean-going cruise line members will continue to be guided by the science and the principle of putting people first, with proven measures that are adapted as conditions warrant to protect the health of cruise passengers, crew members and destinations,” the association said.