Frustration boils over on the CDC's silence on cruise guidelines

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at a Senate Committee hearing where she questioned CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about the cruise industry restart.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at a Senate Committee hearing where she questioned CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about the cruise industry restart.

With cruise lines set to launch this summer just beyond U.S. borders in Bermuda and the Caribbean, frustration over the CDC's refusal to allow ships to sail from U.S. ports has spurred an array of voices to call for the agency to act.

CLIA called for the CDC to drop the Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) and allow cruising to resume from U.S. ports in July, saying the "lack of any action by the CDC has effectively banned all sailings in the largest cruise market in the world."

"The outdated CSO, which was issued almost five months ago, does not reflect the industry's proven advancements and success operating in other parts of the world, nor the advent of vaccines, and unfairly treats cruises differently," said Kelly Craighead, CLIA's CEO. "Cruise lines should be treated the same as other travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors."

ASTA CEO Zane Kerby similarly called for the CDC to "immediately lift its restrictions on cruising and set July 1 as the date that cruising can resume from U.S. ports." He blamed the CDC for pushing Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Crystal Cruises to all launch cruises from Caribbean ports starting in June, bypassing the CSO.

"We fully expect Americans ready to cruise will now begin their journeys by flying to the Caribbean instead of directly to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale," he said in a statement, adding that those "forward-thinking Caribbean islands are now homeports for some of the world's largest cruise ships. In contrast, the CDC's continued inaction in removing cruise restrictions imperil livelihoods and communities in South Florida, up to now the de facto cruise capital of the world, and far beyond. It is a shame that the CDC's inflexibility has brought us to this point."

A CDC statement issued Wednesday evening was a reiteration of its current position, which is the same as it was when CDC issued the order on Oct. 30. The statement says that the order "remains in effect until Nov. 1, 2021. Returning to passenger cruising is a phased approach to mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19.

"Details for the next phase of the CSO are currently under interagency review."

The crescendo of voices questioning the CSO also came from beyond the industry. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski told CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that not knowing when the CSO might be lifted was having a huge impact on Alaskan communities.

"[Alaskans] are asking for some kind of guidance in terms of timeline," she said. "It's the timeline so that you can know to plan. Do we go ahead  the hundreds of small businesses that are reliant on these tourists coming [to Alaska]? Do they open up, or do they acknowledge that this is going to be the second season in a year where they will have nothing and effectively know whether to shutter their operations now?"

The CDC's position on the issue was not helped by Walensky, who, under questioning from Murkowski, seemed unsure which agency has jurisdiction over decisions concerning the timing of the CSO.

"This is an interagency decision, it is not a decision solely up to the CDC," Walensky said, adding when further pressed about a timeline for the CSO, "I can't, simply because I don't believe it's solely in our jurisdiction to address .... I believe Department of Transportation -- there are numerous others that are making these decisions."

A clearly unsatisfied and possibly perplexed Murkowski told Walensky she would follow up with her later. Murkowski's office did not have any information about whether that happened, and the CDC did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

In its call to drop the CSO, CLIA cited the CDC's lack of guidance to enable the cruise lines to move through the order's four phases after the requirement was implemented at the end of October.

Craighead noted that limited cruising has launched in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific, "with nearly 400,000 passengers sailing to date in more than 10 major cruise markets." She further stated that those sailings implemented protocols that "effectively mitigated the spread of Covid-19," with fewer than 50 cases reported, which CLIA noted "is dramatically lower than the rate on land or in any other transportation mode."

Both Kerby and Craighead pointed to what they see as unequal treatment of the cruise industry compared with other forms of travel and leisure.

"Nearly every other form of human activity has been cleared for resumption, including dining in restaurants, attending movies and sporting events, overnight hotel stays and traveling by air," Kerby said. "Inexplicably, however, in the current phase of its [CSO, the CDC] continues to suspend all cruise ship operations in U.S. waters."

Travel advisors, who according to ASTA processed $12.3 billion in cruise sales in 2019, also expressed their frustration and lack of confidence in the CDC.

"You don't have to be very astute to see that the CDC's refusal to work with the cruise industry is purely political suppression and despise," said Denise Koranek of Sunset Vacations in Grapevine, Texas. "The work they've done to sail safely again does not [seem to] matter."

Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain also weighed in recently on the CDC's inaction, in much more accommodating terms, saying that when the order was written, "there were no vaccines, the disease was on an upward trajectory and heading toward a terrible peak."

Today, he said, "the vaccines and other measures have changed the trajectory from a steep climb to a dramatic fall. The pandemic isn't under control, but it is getting there, and society is beginning to open up."

Fain said he doesn't know what the CDC is contemplating "to address these very different set of circumstances," but that he expects the agency will adjust its approach.

"The CSO was a very positive step at the time," he said. "But that time has passed."


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