Despite acknowledging the continued risk of covid-19 transmission on cruise ships, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that it will allow companies to gradually resume operations if they meet agency-established health and safety standards. Oh, but don’t get confused: The CDC still does not want you to go on cruises.
This week, the agency stated that it was issuing the Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, which describes a phase-based process that companies must go through in order to hit the seas again. During the initial phases, the framework will require cruise ship operators to demonstrate that they adhere to testing, quarantine, isolation and social distancing requirements to protect crew members, the agency said.
Later phases will involve mock trips in which volunteers pretend to be passengers in order to evaluate cruise ships’ ability to mitigate covid-19 risk as well as CDC certification for ships that meet its framework requirements. In addition, the agency said that ships would be required to build the laboratory capacity needed to carry out covid-19 tests on crew and future passengers.
CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said that the agency and the cruise industry had the shared goal of protecting crew, passengers and communities. In its statement announcing the framework, the agency stated that recent outbreaks provide current evidence that cruise ship travel facilitates and amplifies the transmission of covid-19 even when operating at reduced passenger capacity.
It added that travel without public health oversight would likely spread the disease into U.S. communities.
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“This framework provides a pathway to resume safe and responsible sailing. It will mitigate the risk of covid-19 outbreaks on ships and prevent passengers and crew from seeding outbreaks at ports and in the communities where they live,” Redfield said.
While that sounds nice, it reeks of Trump administration-approved talking points and is probably not what the CDC, or Redfield for that matter, wanted to do at all. Per Bloomberg, in September the CDC recommended extending its No Sail Order, which banned cruise trips beginning in mid-March to prevent the spread of covid-19, until February of 2021. The agency was purportedly overruled by Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The framework replaces the CDC’s No Sail Order and is in effect until November 1, 2021. On Sept. 30, the last time the CDC renewed the cruise ban, the agency stated that from March to September, there had been at least 3,689 covid-19 or covid-like illness cases on cruise ships in U.S. waters, as well as at least 41 reported deaths. It added that the numbers were likely “incomplete and an underestimate.”
Although Redfield was probably bullied into supporting the re–initiation of cruise activity, the CDC apparently wanted to let its opposition be known somehow. So the agency did what it has done various times in the past: It discreetly posted its actual advice on its website.
On a web page explaining its role in helping cruise ship travelers during the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC explained the new framework and also offered guidance to people who wondered what it might mean for their upcoming trips.
“On March 17, 2020, CDC issued a Level 3 Travel Health Notice with a clear recommendation to avoid all cruise travel due to ongoing spread of covid-19 and the increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases on cruise ships. This notice remains in effect,” the CDC stated.
When you click on the link the CDC includes in “Level 3,” it takes you to another agency page which, lo and behold, also tells passengers to “defer all cruise travel worldwide.”
So what does this mean for cruises? Well, we still don’t know when exactly they’ll be able to set sail with passengers again, even though the CDC has already lifted its ban. Bloomberg found that since every ship will have to be certified by the CDC, it’s unclear how long that will take.
Nonetheless, considering the U.S. has more than nine million reported cases of covid-19, this latest move seems thoroughly irresponsible. It’s clear that we have to find a way to live with the virus until we have a vaccine, and I’m all for that. But it’s one thing to loosen restrictions when infections go down and hospitals are able to breathe, it’s another thing to loosen restrictions when the U.S. just set the world record for most reported coronavirus cases—more than 100,000—in 24 hours.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the country’s leading infectious disease expert, on Friday told the Washington Post that the U.S. could not be “positioned more poorly” heading into the winter, which will see more people head indoors.
“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Fauci said.