July 18 ------ With cases of COVID-19 growing exponentially across the United States, and especially in the southern states that host many cruises, it came as little surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today announced the extension of its No Sail Order for cruise ships through September 30, 2020. As with the prior order announced in April, the current revision suspends passenger operations on cruise ships with a capacity to carry at least 250 passengers in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction. As before, the CDC said the order will remain in effect until the expiration of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ declaration that COVID-19 constitutes a public health emergency, or the CDC director rescinds or modifies the order, or until September 30, 2020.
The CDC noted in its announcement that it supported the cruise industry’s June announcement to continue the pause in North American operations until September 15. CDC, however, said it has extended its order to “ensure that passenger operations on cruise ships do not resume prematurely.” The CDC ignored the issues of the spread of the virus onshore instead choosing to say, “On cruise ships, passengers and crew share spaces that are more crowded than most urban settings. Even when only essential crew are on board, ongoing spread of COVID-19 still occurs.” The announcement went on to cite data from the CDC reporting nearly 3,000 COVID-19 or COVID-like illness cases on cruise ships since March, including 34 death. As of July 3, the CDC says that nine of the 49 ships under its current No Sail Order have ongoing or resolving outbreaks.
Observers were not surprised by the extension. In June, when the CDC provided its guidance for the crew aboard the cruise ships it said, “We don’t have enough information at this time to say when it will be safe to resume sailing with passengers. Cruise lines may need to establish additional safety measures before sailing with passengers is permitted to resume. CDC will continue to evaluate and update its recommendations as the situation evolves.” Before the CDC’s announcement, executives in the cruise industry had expressed their views that the pace of the virus along with people’s willingness to travel would determine when the cruise industry could resume in North America. They say that people need to be comfortable traveling and gathering in groups. To prepare for a return to cruising the industry has been engaging experts in the health fields and hosting panels to draft protocols for cruise ship operations.
Critics however have also emerged saying that they think the CDC has not responded to the cruise industry. The director of Port Canaveral voiced his disappointment in the treatment of the cruise industry at one of the port commissioner’s meetings. Similarly, financial analyst Harry Curtis with the firm Instinet wrote, “The issue is not that the industry has been passive in developing health protocols. Quite the contrary. In our view, the hurdle lies with the CDC’s unwillingness to discuss, debate, and mutually implement the highest standards of passenger and crew healthcare." Even before the current resurgence of the disease, Curtis wrote that the 2020 cruise season was effectively lost. He forecast that it would take the CDC three to six months to respond to the expert panel’s recommendations.
In the meantime, Europe which has been more successful in the mitigation of the virus is proceeding with reducing restrictions. Cruising has resumed in Norway and on rivers in Europe and will soon resume with the German cruise lines offering short cruises without ports starting in late July and August. Similarly, the first cruises have been announced in Asia sailing from Taiwan. Like the CDC, the British authorities last week announced that they felt people should continue to avoid cruising. It is unclear when the United States will be in a position to permit the resumption in cruising.