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Burning Questions: What We Want to Know After Reading the CDC's New Cruise Order

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On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its long-standing No-Sail Order in favor of a framework that would allow for the safe resumption of cruise operations from U.S. homeports.But after a weekend of leafing through the 40-page order, Cruise Critic staffers and long-time readers have more questions than answers.

A complex restart and certification process has created a number of burning queries from ardent cruisers. And though we don't know the answer to all of these questions, cruisers can make some educated guesses.Cruise Critic reached out to several lines for comment but none were prepared to discuss the CDC's new framework at press time.In an email to Cruise Critic, a CDC spokesperson stated that it did not have further details about simulated voyages or restricted sailing operations."Further information about restricted voyages will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders," the CDC told Cruise Critic.Here's what we know, so far.

Yay, the No Sail Order Was Lifted! Is My December Cruise a Go?

No. All the major lines, including Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean, among others, have canceled their remaining 2020 voyages just days after the CDC's announcement.On Tuesday, CLIA announced its member lines -- which encompass most of the world's ocean and river operators -- would voluntarily suspend operations until January 1, 2021.Bummer.

What About January?

January is a wild card.In theory, if cruise lines can have their crews certified as COVID-19-free over the coming month and get the necessary ships into position, they could be poised to start conducting the "simulated voyages" the CDC will require operators to complete before ships can be certified for operation. A number of ships are clustered off the Bahamas.Here's the trouble: No one knows how long this "simulated voyage" test will take. It could be over and done with in a day, or lines could have to continually run through tests for weeks.Lines are also being required to submit lengthy reports after the simulated-voyages and are required to request pre-clearance to conduct these voyages.If all that goes well, cruises could possibly resume in January. Keep in mind, the CDC is a government agency, and we're heading into the holiday season. Response times could be slow.

How Can I get on One of These Simulated Voyages?

We don't know yet. The CDC doesn't outline its process, other than to say volunteers can't be compensated in any way or forced to participate as a condition of employment.The CDC also stipulates that test passengers must be over 18 and have no pre-existing medical conditions that could put the individual at high risk for contracting COVID-19 as determined by the CDC.Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain had earlier stated that the company would conduct test voyages with corporate employees. It is not known whether this will happen.

What Happens if There is a Suspected COVID Case Aboard One of the Simulated Voyages?

A suspected COVID-19 case would shut down the simulation, per the CDC. Lines would presumably then be required to restart the process at a later point.In an email to Cruise Critic, the CDC stated, "This will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders."

How About Small Ships -- Could They Start Up Sooner?

Possibly. Like the No-Sail Order, the CDC's new framework only applies to passenger vessels sailing overnight voyages with 250 passengers and crew or more combined.Despite the fact they were not directly affected by the No-Sail Order, however, smaller operators like American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company and UnCruise Adventures -- all American-based cruise lines -- were not able to get any of their 2020 sailings off the dock.One line that has been able to start, albeit from Barbados instead of the U.S., is SeaDream Yacht Club. The luxury line is starting a series of weeklong cruises in the Caribbean.The CDC's Order Says No Cruises Over Seven Days.

Does That Mean Southern Caribbean Cruises Aren't Going Ahead Because They're 10 days?

Unless these cruises changed to a non-U.S. port of embarkation like Barbados, a 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise would not be allowed to operate under the current framework.This would also affect cruises like Panama Canal voyages, though transatlantic crossings might be allowed to go ahead as they are leaving U.S. waters and U.S. jurisdiction."CDC has not yet determined and further information about restricted voyages will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders," the CDC told Cruise Critic in response to this question.

Will I Still Be Able to Cruise Back-to-Back (or Back-to-Back-to-Back)?

The CDC doesn't provide any clarity or guidance for back-to-back cruisers booking multiple voyages."CDC has not yet determined and further information about restricted voyages will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders," a CDC representative told Cruise Critic in response to this question.

Are These Hurdles Realistic, or Will the Cruise Lines Just Say This is Too Complicated?

It is true that the CDC does not require any travel-related industry, or any other industry, to jump through similar hurdles. The U.S. airline industry continues to operate with few COVID-19 regulations in place, and hotels and resorts are largely allowed to follow local health and safety protocols.(That's not to say that the airline or leisure industry in the United States has it easy: reduced travel still means vastly reduced revenue, layoffs, and downsizing for all concerned).

Cruise lines are in an increasingly untenable position. They are in a zero-revenue, zero-operational environment, with more cash going out than coming in. Despite the massive influx of credit that operators have acquired over the past few months, expenses continue to mount, and debts continue to pile up as operations remain suspended.

Restarting cruise in any form is going to be more critical with each passing month. Whether the lines like it or not, the CDC's path is the only way cruises will resume -- at least, in the United States.Another option could be to start deploying ships from other parts of the world, but only when the time is right.

How Many COVID-19 Tests Will I Have to Take to Get Onboard? Who is Going to Conduct All of These Tests?

Passengers will have to be tested at embarkation and again at disembarkation. The CDC will require that no passengers leave until after all COVID-negative PCR tests have been received, which could take some time.No one quite knows what this disembarkation process will look like yet.Crew will be required to test weekly, and all incoming crewmembers will have to meet quarantine procedures as defined by the CDC -- something cruise lines are already doing with their essential deck and engine officers currently onboard.Likewise, we still don't know who will conduct these tests. The CDC states that the cruise operator must conduct all these tests onboard and then transfer them to an unspecified shoreside operator.Cruise lines have to notify the CDC a full week before doing these tests, and the CDC must approve the laboratory selected. The laboratory must be a "Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments" certified facility, confusingly abbreviated as CLIA, which is also the acronym for the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's trade group.On Monday, Viking Cruises announced it had installed the first seagoing PCR test laboratory aboard its 930-passenger Viking Star. It is a move that could pave the way for more rapid, flexible testing for COVID-19.

Is There a Limit for How Many COVID-19 Cases a Cruise Could Have? Is One Suspected Case Enough to Cancel My Voyage?

We just don't know. The CDC hasn't provided this information."CDC has not yet determined and further information about restricted voyages will be outlined in future technical instructions and orders," stated the CDC in an email to Cruise Critic regarding this question.Can the CDC Just Stop Cruising at Any Time if There is an Outbreak? It appears that way. According to the CDC's new guidance, ships with "a threshold of COVID-19 being detected in passengers or crew" will result in the cancellation of that particular voyage and the requirement the ship returns to its U.S. port of embarkation.The CDC can then require that the operator cancel all future passenger voyages until the CDC decides otherwise.The CDC provides no information on what the onboard infection threshold might be.

Do Ships Have to Have Enhanced Medical Facilities Onboard?

Interestingly, the CDC's new framework makes no requirements or provisions on the onboard health care teams or facilities aboard cruise ships.The only requirement is that cruise operators have onboard testing capabilities to test all symptomatic travelers, both crew and passengers. It also specifies that onboard medical center staff must be competent in specimen collection and be familiar with all needed equipment onboard.

Will There be Port Stops, and Will We Have to Get Tested in Every Port?

That currently isn't known, either.It is likely that cruise lines will lean heavily on their private islands at first, as it is an environment that they can completely control.Some countries, like the Bahamas, have recently modified their testing protocols to include the provision that tests conducted at embarkation on a cruise ship will be enough for passengers calling for the day.Keep in mind, though, that much like in Europe, passengers will only be allowed off ships in ship-sponsored shore excursions. Independent exploration will probably not be allowed for some time.

Why Can't Cruise Lines Just Bypass the CDC and Operate from Non-U.S. Ports?

They could -- and that certainly remains a possibility if the CDC's framework proves to be too onerous.Reduced air service, coupled with travel restrictions to many destinations, however, makes a return to cruising from the United States favorable for many cruise lines and potential passengers.The CDC also seeks to force lines to resume sailing from the United States. The current framework includes the provision that any ship sent outside of the United States to operate must reapply for certification no earlier than 28 days prior to entering U.S. waters. It is unknown if that ship then has to go through the entire certification process, with its simulated test voyages, all over again.Certainly, this could pose issues for cruise lines planning to send ships to Europe for summer 2021 season, or to other foreign countries.Note that the CDC's regulations do not apply outside the United States. European voyages in summer 2021 would apply with the similar framework that has been used successfully over there.

How Similar are These Protocols to What is Going on with European Cruises?

In July, the European Union created its Healthy Gateways program that specified certain procedures -- like masking, physical distancing and rapid PCR testing -- for European operators to use.Lines like MSC Cruises enhanced those protocols substantially and have tested them successfully on a number of Mediterranean cruises that have been operating since August.MSC has taken a tough stance on its policies, another move that has proven effective to keep passengers safe during the time of COVID.At the outset, the CDC's requirements are in-line with what lines are already doing in Europe. The trouble is the onerous restart phase that requires lines to jump through a number of procedural hoops that go far beyond what the European Union is requiring before sailings can resume -- and the requirement that they not leave U.S. waters.

How Much of the CDC's New Guidance Is Based on Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel?

At the moment, it's hard to tell.The CDC did acknowledge that the Healthy Sail Panel, formed by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, did make recommendations to the CDC, along with CLIA.It also noted that a majority of public respondents (75 percent) were in favor of allowing cruise to resume. Only 25 percent of respondents supported a full halt to cruise activities until a vaccine is widely available.The CDC "considered these comments in drafting this framework." No further information is available.

This All Sounds Difficult for the Cruise Lines to Pull Off. Does the CDC Really Want Cruising to Start at All?

It is possible that the CDC does not want cruising to resume. At least, not yet.Axios had reported in September that the White House had initially overruled CDC Director Robert Redfield, who had wanted the No-Sail Order extended into February 2021.The CDC's new framework from November 1, in some ways, appears to offer lines the flexibility to restart their cruise operations safely and in full compliance with the CDC's health and safety objectives.On closer inspection, however, it would seem that the CDC's new guidance is a No-Sail Order by any other name. Should cruise lines complete the required steps -- something they will no doubt start doing immediately -- the CDC could continually reserve the right to deny them the ability to sail until it decides otherwise thanks to the sheer number of steps and procedures required by lines for compliance.This order is in effect until November 1, 2021 -- meaning any decision the CDC makes will be with us for the next year.