Exclusive: No cruising in US waters until 2021 as industry voluntarily extends suspension

Morgan Hines

The cruise industry has suspended cruises until 2021 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "no-sail" order expired Saturday and was replaced by a "Conditional Sailing Order."

"As we work to operationalize a path forward, our members have agreed to extend our existing suspension of U.S. operations through December 31," Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry's leading trade group, told USA TODAY in a statement. 

The organization's members carry 95% of the world's oceangoing cruisers, all of which, Golin-Blaugrund said, are committed to implementing "stringent measures to address COVID-19 safety, including 100% testing of passengers and crew, expanded onboard medical capabilities, and trial sailings, among many others."

CLIA announced the voluntary suspension on Tuesday, which is set to expire on Dec. 31. The industry's previous suspension expired on Saturday, the same day the CDC's "no-sail" order expired.

The CDC's new order “introduces a phased approach for the safe and responsible resumption for passenger cruises,” the agency said in a news release.

The "Conditional Sailing Order" doesn't prohibit sailing as the CDC's "no-sail" order did, but it doesn't exactly allow passenger cruises to commence immediately either. 

"This 'Framework of Conditional Sailing' lays out a pathway – a phased, deliberate and intentional pathway – toward resuming passenger services but only when it is safe, when (the cruise industry) can assure health and when they are responsible with respects of needs of crew passengers and port communities," Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told USA TODAY on Friday.

Not to mention the CDC still advises passengers against sailing on a cruise ship. Last month, the CDC issued a "Level 3 Travel Health Notice" recommending people "defer travel" on cruise ships worldwide. The Oct. 8 statement applies to both ocean and river cruising, which have already restarted in Asia and Europe.

Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Carnival Corp. all announced their own voluntary sailing suspensions through the end of the year ahead of CLIA's announcement Tuesday.

Last week, Virgin Voyages delayed its debut season until January, too. 

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Sailing suspension continues, but the industry is preparing

The cruise industry has been preparing to sail again for some time, and by pushing sailing off until the new year, they will have more time to prepare and align industry protocols with standards in the CDC's new order, which includes test sailings, among other requirements to be completed, before passenger cruises can resume. 

In September, the industry announced mandatory health and safety changes in preparation for a return to cruising. CLIA and its member cruise lines adopted more extensive mandatory health protocols for vessels that can carry 250 or more passengers, which include crew and passenger testing, mask-wearing, enhanced cruise ship ventilation, response procedures and shore excursion protocols.

CLIA worked with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian's "Healthy Sail Panel," other cruise lines and health experts and examined sailings with new protocols in place in Europe.

In October, CLIA made the call that all its member ships would adopt all 74 of the panel's recommendations to healthily resume cruising in U.S. waters.

The industry also announced universal testing on ships with the capability of carrying 250 or more people worldwide.

Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, believes that the industry has found a way to move forward.

"We do believe it is possible to make it that you are safer on a cruise ship than you are on 'Main Street'," he said on the company's earnings call on Oct. 29.

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