CDC Says COVID Protocols Are Now Optional for Cruise Lines

What it means for your next voyage.
NCL Cruise Line Pride of America Na Pali Coast Kauai Hawaii
Danny Lehman/Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Lines

Health guidelines for cruising amid COVID-19 are shifting once again. On Saturday, the mandatory protocols set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expired. Those rules, which were called a Conditional Sailing Order and included steps like testing and quarantining for positive passengers, will now be optional for cruise lines.

“I think the Conditional Sail Order and the fact the industry has stepped up and is now interested in exceeding the compliance with the Sail Order without the order necessarily being in place is a real testimonial to how well that has worked,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, in a Senate hearing last week. 

For cruise lines that opt-in to the CDC’s voluntary program, safety practices on board ships will largely remain unchanged. According to the CDC, the participating ships will continue to follow its public health guidelines, including case reporting, testing, and infection prevention and control. Individual ships will also receive a color-coded ranking—either green, yellow, orange, or red—based on the number of positive cases on board.

Cruise lines operating in the U.S. first began following the CDC’s conditional sailing order in the summer of 2021. The order was part of a “phased approach” implemented by the CDC to get ships sailing again after the agency’s ban on voyages expired in late 2020. (The mandatory protocols only applied to foreign-flagged cruise ships operating international itineraries; certain smaller river cruises operating within the U.S. were still allowed to operate throughout the ban.) As ships were once again preparing to leave ports, the CDC order required cruise lines to test passengers before they boarded ships, establish on-board laboratories for testing, and prove the ability to minimize the spread of the virus should a person on board test positive. By following these steps and a certification process, cruise lines were allowed to reinstate passenger voyages.

As the Delta variant spread through 2021, the order was extended to January 15, 2022. Although cases of the Omicron variant are currently surging in most parts of the U.S., the CDC seems confident that most operators will opt in and follow the recommended guidelines. Even while still under the sailing order, many cruise lines including Disney, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean had already enacted policies that went beyond the CDC’s guidelines, such as making vaccinations mandatory for those who are eligible and requiring masks while indoors onboard the ship.

The transition 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,” Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group representing ship operators around the world, said in a recent release.

Several cruise lines have already expressed their commitment to the new voluntary program. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced that its three brands—Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises—notified the CDC of their decision to opt-in.

Cruise lines that choose to opt-out of the new program will not have complete freedom over safety protocols, as all ships—regardless of participation status—will still be regulated by the CDC. This means these ships will still receive inspections, continue to be subject to the federal mask order for public transportation, and be compelled to report any cases onboard. Non-participating cruises will also have their CDC color-coded travel recommendation status updated to gray, which signifies an unknown level of COVID cases.

Before booking or embarking on a cruise, passengers should check that they are comfortable with the ship's health protocols, as well as the COVID situation in any ports of call. Travelers can also find a list of the ships the CDC is monitoring on the agency's site. 

The expiration of the sailing order comes on the heels of the CDC updating its COVID-19 Travel Health Notice level for cruise ship travel from a Level 3 to Level 4, the highest risk category. Several cruise lines have recently suspended voyages due to onboard cases of the Omicron variant. The CDC asks cruise lines to opt-in to the voluntary program by January 21.