While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a no-sail order for cruise lines from U.S. ports through Oct. 31, the cruise industry was already in a holding pattern until at least November. Despite the potential for a further extension in another month, Port Canaveral and at least one cruise line are prepping for the return of sailing.
Cruise lines have been under the order since mid-March as part of the CDC’s efforts to battle the spread of coronavirus, but have also voluntarily suspended sailings. All member lines to trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) had earlier this summer already halted plans to get back to business until at least Nov. 1.
So now with the CDC update, the dates match, but it could have been longer.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s extension, media outlets including Axios and The New York Times reported the head of the CDC wanted to halt sailings into February 2021, but acquiesced to merely a one-month extension at the behest of the White House.
"Anything is a sliver of light at this point in time,” said Port Canaveral CEO Capt. John Murray, and he was critical of any extension and the CDC’s take on the state of cruise safety.
“It’s exactly what I expected from CDC,” Murray said. “They have been very opposed to the cruising industry since the shutdown at the very beginning.”
Cruise lines were at the epicenter of deadly outbreaks in early 2020 as the coronavirus first began to take hold, including the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined in Japan back in February, and one of the catalysts to the March shutdown of the cruise industry.
“The challenge here is that since everything shut down in March, we’ve learned a lot about the coronavirus. We’ve learned how it transmits. We’ve learned how to treat it. It’s still out there but it’s manageable and it can be managed,” Murray said. “And they’re proving that in Europe with the sailings over there right now. I think this was such a difficult thing at first with the CDC that there’s no motivation for them to want to deal with it again and that’s unfortunate for us.”
The CDC report, though, states, “Cruise ships continue to be an unsafe environment with close quarters where the disease spreads easily and is not readily detected."
Through Sept. 28, the CDC report said 3,689 confirmed cases of COVID-19 or similar illness stemmed from cruise ships resulting in 41 deaths. This was from among 102 outbreaks on 124 ships, or 82% of ships within U.S. jurisdiction, the report said. Four ships still have ongoing outbreaks, the CDC said.
“Recent outbreaks on cruise ships overseas continue to demonstrate that reduced capacity alone has not diminished transmission,” the report said.
Part of cruise lines' plans for return to safe sailing include passenger limits, social distancing and according to a CLIA announcement in September, the requirement of a negative COVID-19 test taken between five days and 24 hours of sailing. Similar plans have been enacted by lines including Costa and MSC Cruises while recently beginning sailing in Europe.
“There’s four cruise lines operating quite successfully in Europe right now and none of them were highlighted in their 29-page resort,” Murray said.
On Thursday, Carnival Cruise Line announced that because of the extension, it was focusing solely on two Florida ports for its eventual return to cruise, canceling all cruises elsewhere for November and December.
“As we have said throughout this pause, our return to operations will be gradual and phased in," said Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy. "While we are not making any presumptions, once cruising is allowed, we will center our initial start-up from the homeports of Miami and Port Canaveral.”
Carnival, along with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, continue to have November sailings from Port Canaveral available for booking, while Disney Cruise Line and MSC Cruises have December options available.
Final itineraries and ships that will actually sail in cruising’s first month, though, is not nailed down.
“We don’t know what ships or what rotations or anything at this point in time,” Murray said.
No line can return to sailing, though, until the no-sail order is lifted, and a safety plan for sailing amid COVID-19 is approved by the CDC. And since cruise lines have to sail to at least one foreign port, destination countries have to be willing to let a ship dock and its passengers get off as well.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the month,” Murray said. “For all we know they could extend it again.”
Murray said that the extension also means any actual sailing won’t occur until mid- to late-November because of the time needed for the cruise lines to ramp up, but that Port Canaveral is ready.
“We can get our component running very quickly,” he said. “We’ve already given quite a bit of thought as to what would be required on a restart. We’ve got Cruise Terminal 3 that’s fully outfitted and ready to go. In fact if you’re in there now, everything’s covered in plastic just because we don’t want it to get dirty before the first cruise ship arrives. We can go pretty quick.”
Still, Murray said Carnival’s stance to focus on Port Canaveral and Miami was proof that when people do get back on ships, the Central Florida embarkation point is one of the best options.
“I firmly believe that we would be one of the first markets to start because we’re so much of a drive-in market and cruising’s going to start with drive-in passengers,” Murray said. “I think we’ve always been in the driver’s seat as far as a restart and I think today’s message is clear indicator that that’s they way it’s probably going to go.”
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