It’s the latest in a series of mixed messages from the CDC — not just about cruise safety, but a host of other Covid restrictions — as the agency faces an onslaught from Omicron. It’s also a stark example of the tough decisions the Biden administration and other officials must make nearly two years into the pandemic as it tries to balance public health and a still-fragile economy.
“We have to weigh what our opportunities are and how we protect our community members,” said Justa Encarnacion, health commissioner for the US Virgin Islands, who has the power to determine which ships are allowed to dock on US territory. “We are negotiating with cruise lines on an ongoing basis.”
Donna Shalala, former secretary of Health and Human Services and former Democratic Florida lawmaker, supports the continuation of cruises, but agreed that the CDC’s messages were confusing.
“I don’t know how to describe it other than I just don’t understand how they make decisions at CDC,” Shalala said. “I am not critical; I’m just saying that I don’t understand. I think the cruise industry has done all it can do.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s decisions during a Senate HELP committee hearing this week, saying federal officials and the cruise industry have reached an agreement that will keep cruises on the water despite Omicron.
She said that after the CDC banned cruise lines from docking in the United States, the industry “has escalated and is now interested in doing and exceeding … respect for the order of sailing – without the order even necessarily being in place – is a testament to how this order has worked and how we work with the industry.
In March 2020 the cruise industry was at an all-time low, regularly in the news with nightmarish stories of how Covid tore passengers apart. Ships full of people went from port to port, seeking to disembark. The Diamond Princess remained infamous off the coast of Japan for weeks as passengers and crew were infected before being evacuated.
As concern grew, the CDC issued an order that barred foreign-registered cruise ships — which make up the bulk of the world’s fleet — from docking in the United States. seen as slow to respond to the outbreak of Covid.
But even though most ships are not registered in the United States, its citizens are by far the world’s largest cruise market, and the CDC’s “no-sail” order, which banned ships from March 2020 to June 2021, has crippled the industry.
The CDC ban essentially forced the industry to do good. And in June, cruise lines agreed to CDC terms that would allow them to sail again, including proving that the vast majority of not only crew but also passengers on board were vaccinated.
But Omicron’s virulent appearance just as vaccinations began to give people a taste of freedom presents new challenges.
As of Thursday, 91 cruise ships were reporting enough Covid cases to warrant a CDC investigation, which can lead to increased reporting requirements and, in extreme circumstances, warrant a ship’s return to port. Of the 109 cruise ships the CDC is tracking, only 12 are reporting zero Covid cases on board. Participation in these reporting requirements once the order is lifted will be voluntary, but all major cruise lines have committed to continue.
But unlike spring 2020, calls for cruise closures are muted again. Some lines had already canceled cruises for the 2022 season. Ships reporting a significant number of Covid cases are not allowed to dock at many ports. And major industry players require vaccines for everyone on board, including passengers – a standard few industries can boast of.
“With broader access to vaccines, we are, fortunately, in a different place than where we were in 2020,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.), Who was a major critic of cruise industry safety regulations. at the start of the pandemic. “However, the CDC … must continue to closely monitor the risk to cruise passengers and continue to provide scientific advice.”
Even if the CDC ends its Covid restrictions on the cruise industry, major industry players say they plan to keep their vaccination protocols in place.
The Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s lobbying arm, said its customers are the only segment of the travel and tourism industry that requires nearly all passengers and crew to be vaccinated, and tests Everybody aboard.
“Additionally, cruise is the only industry that continuously monitors, collects and reports case information directly to the CDC,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications and public affairs for CLIA. “Given this surveillance and the particularly high rate of vaccination required on board, the incidence of serious illness is considerably lower than on land, and hospitalizations have been extremely rare, even at a time when land hospitalizations are peaking.”
Not everyone agrees, of course. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) oppose rescinding the conditional sailing order. Blumenthal has called for all cruises to stop on December 28.
“A premature transition to a voluntary program could allow companies to circumvent necessary public health measures,” Blumenthal and Matsui wrote to Walensky on Thursday, and urged the CDC to expand bans on cruise ships.
Federal politics and court battles
The cruise industry won another battle in August, when a federal judge blocked a Florida law that prevented cruise lines from requiring passengers to prove they are vaccinated, allowing the industry to impose its own vaccination mandates. Conversely, the state of Florida won in court in July after challenging the validity of the conditional sail order, despite major cruise lines saying they would follow the now voluntary rules.
“I don’t believe any level of government should be telling businesses that you have to get vaccinated or that you can’t ask if you’ve had a vaccine,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) who said both decisions, a split decision for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, were good for the industry and cruise lines.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told a committee hearing this week that revoking the conditional sailing order was essential for communities in her state that rely on summer cruise revenue to survive. She pushed Walensky to say publicly that the expiring rules would not be reimposed any time soon.
Walensky replied that she does not plan to restore the conditional sailing order, but forecasts are impossible.
“We anticipate that this order will not be renewed and that the cruise industry will continue to understand that this is a really safe practice for those industries,” Walensky said. “What I can’t predict is what the summer will bring.”
A balanced approach
The current state of cruises in the Omicron era has presented challenges to health officials like Encarnacion, health commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On Dec. 28, Encarnacion denied two cruise ships entry into the USVI because their onboard positivity rates were above 1%, the threshold the territorial government allows for visiting ships.
Encarnacion said the CDC’s requirement that cruise ships report positive cases on board, which remains in place despite the end of the conditional sailing order, allows him to make informed decisions that balance public health concerns. with the benefits of an industry that directly employs thousands of USVI residents and contributes tens of millions of dollars to the economy.
“You have to balance finances with health,” Encarnacion said. “We’ve learned to balance that quite well.”
Encarnacion said that while her agency’s conversations with the cruise industry were challenging and “difficult” at times, she understands that ships coming to USVI contain passengers and crew who are nearly 100% vaccinated, its greatest public health concern.
“Cruise lines know what the risk factors are,” Encarnacion said. “It’s not just a risk to our community, but it’s a very, very high risk to them.”
Shalala said now that cruises are able to sail, they have a business incentive to reduce cases as much as possible. And this far into the pandemic, now is not the time for the federal government to shut things down and inject more uncertainty for cruise industry employees.
“It doesn’t work for them if we turn the tap off and on,” Shalala said.