Cruise lines will not be obliged to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Saturday despite the omicron surge.
The CDC's Conditional Sailing Order, a set of health and safety rules that cruise companies have had to abide by since October 2020, expired Saturday. The agency will "transition to a voluntary program, in coordination with the cruise ship operators and other stakeholders, to assist the cruise industry to detect, mitigate, and control the spread of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships."
"The transition of the Conditional Sailing Order (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," a statement from industry group Cruise Lines International Association said.
The CSO, which was extended last October, made regular testing of crew members and new passengers mandatory, as well as onboard testing capabilities in the event that a passenger gets sick. Masks are also mandatory indoors at all times except when eating and drinking. The CSO also required that ships conduct simulated voyages in order to test their COVID-19 mitigation efforts. While the safety guidelines will be voluntary, many cruise lines are expected to keep at least some or all of them in place.
"Given this oversight and the uniquely high vaccination rate required on board, the incidence of serious illness is dramatically lower than on land, and hospitalizations have been extraordinarily rare even while landside hospitalizations are peaking," CLIA said.
Cruise ships that opt in to the program will have to report new outbreaks to the CDC, which classifies the severity of each ship's outbreak by color. Companies that do not participate will be listed by the CDC in gray, indicating that the "CDC has not reviewed or confirmed the cruise ship's health and safety protocols."
The CSO expiration date comes just two weeks after the CDC heightened its risk level of cruising to four, the highest classification. The agency announced that even people who have been vaccinated should reconsider their travel plans, and anyone going on a cruise should test for COVID-19 a few days before and after travel.
The rate of new infections recorded at sea is rising, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. The agency reported last month that ships operating in U.S. waters confirmed more than 5,000 COVID-19 infections between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29, up from just 162 cases during the first two weeks of the month.
"Just over the last two weeks with omicron, we've seen a thirtyfold increase in cases on ships during this season," Walensky told the Senate health committee on Tuesday. "So while I anticipate that with ships following the conditional sale order, we still will continue to follow, do the oversight and … support in every single way."
Cruise companies have until Jan. 21 to opt in to the voluntary program.
Original Location: Cruise ships no longer have to abide by CDC safety standards for COVID-19