Cruise lines will no longer be obliged to follow COVID guidance on ships as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing Order, which was extended and modified in October, will expire Saturday at which point the health agency's COVID guidance for cruise ships will become voluntary, the CDC confirmed to USA TODAY Wednesday. This means cruise lines can choose whether to follow the health agency's guidance or not.
The health agency "is transitioning to a voluntary COVID-19 risk mitigation program" the CDC said in a statement shared by spokesperson David Daigle.
The program includes guidance and recommendations for cruise ships to keep operating in a way that fosters a safer and healthier environment for passengers, crew and impacted communities, according to the CDC.
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"Cruise ships operating in U.S. waters choosing to participate in the program on a voluntary basis agree to follow all recommendations and guidance issued by CDC as part of this program," the CDC continued, noting the recommendations are aimed at reducing the spread of COVID.
Vessels operating in U.S. waters and sailing international itineraries that choose not to participate will be classified as "gray" on the health agency's "Cruise Ship Color Status" website to indicate the CDC hasn't reviewed the health and safety protocols put in place by that ship's operator. Cruise ships that opt-out and sail only in U.S. waters will not be listed at all.
The CDC has relayed the information about the voluntary program to cruise industry members and expects cruise lines to indicate whether or not they will participate "in the coming week."
As of Monday, reported COVID cases had increased 53% from a week earlier, averaging more than 750,000 new infections per day, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
The CDC added that more information about the voluntary program will be released Saturday, when the CSO expires.
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CSO expires at the heels of CDC's travel warning
The order, first announced in October 2020, was created by the CDC to lay out a phased approach for the safe resumption of cruising in U.S. waters.
The expiration of the CSO comes just over two weeks after the CDC issued a warning against cruise travel on Dec. 30 after clusters of COVID-19 cases emerged on ships departing from the U.S. and around the globe.
Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade organization for the cruise industry, said Wednesday that the CDC's decision to move forward with transitioning its CSO to a voluntary program recognizes that the cruise industry has upheld an "unwavering commitment" to COVID mitigation.
"Cruise is the only segment of travel and tourism that requires, prior to embarkation for both passengers and crew, exceedingly high levels of vaccination (approaching 100% compared to only 63% of the U.S. population) and 100% testing of every individual (21 times the rate of the U.S. on land)," CLIA said in a statement shared by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for CLIA.
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The organization continued that cases are identified as a result of "high-frequency" testing and that protocols in place help to contain the spread of COVID on board. The cruise industry is also the only travel sector that has continuously monitored, collected and reported COVID case information to the CDC, CLIA added.
CLIA said that the industry will continue to "be guided by the science and the principle of putting people first."
While it doesn't appear that CDC regulations will hold the industry back or shut it down as it did in March 2020, cruise lines have taken steps of their own in the face of omicron including canceling sailings.
Royal Caribbean International announced Friday that it will pause operations on multiple ships because of COVID-19, canceling some sailings and pushing back one ship's return to cruising. And Norwegian Cruise Line canceled cruises on several of its ships last week as COVID-19 continues to surge with the emergence of the omicron variant.
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Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise lines' CDC COVID protocols will become voluntary