CDC releases new COVID guidelines for cruise industry

Cruise ships dock at PortMiami as the cruise line industry waits to begin operations again on May 26, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised its COVID-19 guidance for cruise ship travel

In an update published Feb. 9, the agency clarified the modifications of its COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships Operating in U.S. Waters and added criteria for how the CDC determines the level for the cruise ship COVID-19 Travel Health Notice.

The new guidelines allow cruise ships operating in U.S. waters to choose to participate in the CDC's COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships, which requires participating cruise lines to report the vaccination status classification for each ship. 

Ships can either be reported as "Not Highly Vaccinated" with less than 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated, "Highly vaccinated" with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are fully vaccinated but less than 95% of passengers and 95% of crew who are up to date with COVID-19 vaccines or "Vaccination Standard of Excellence," with at least 95% passengers and 95% crew who are up to date with vaccines.

That status will be included on the agency's Cruise Ship Color Status webpage

Those who opt out of the program will be designated as "Gray," meaning the CDC has neither reviewed nor confirmed the cruise ship operator’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Cruise lines that plan to join the program have until Feb. 18 to notify the Maritime Unit regarding their decision. 

These tiers also dictate quarantine and isolation protocol. 

All travelers on the cruise ship with signs and symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, must be isolated and tested for infection immediately upon notifying medical staff of symptom onset.

On ships that have a Vaccination Standard of Excellence classification, close contacts must quarantine until at least five full days after their last exposure and receive a viral test immediately and on day five before ending quarantine. Those who remain asymptomatic after five days and have negative results for both tests may end quarantine but are required to continue to properly wear a well-fitting mask for five days any time they are around others.

For ships that do not have that classification, the CDC says close contacts must quarantine until at least 10 days after their last exposure and receive a viral test – a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT) is preferred – immediately and on day 10 before ending quarantine. If they remain asymptomatic after 10 days and both tests are negative, they may end quarantine.

Passengers are currently advised to avoid cruise travel, but the agency instructs those who do choose to travel on a cruise ship make sure they are vaccinated and up to date.

People should check their cruise ship's color code and vaccination status classification before traveling, as well as get a viral test as close to time of cruise departure – no more than three days – as possible.

Passengers should also get tested three to five days after the cruise, regardless of vaccination status and those who are not up to date with COVID-19 vaccines should self-quarantine for a full five days after cruise travel.

All passengers on ships that are likely to be assigned "Red" status will be tested mid-voyage and or before the end of the trip, regardless of their vaccination status, and mask use will be required by all passengers and crew indoors and in crowded outdoor areas.

The CDC says people should wear a mask indoors or in crowded outdoors settings, regardless of a ship's color status.

The agency's Temporary Extension & Modification of Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO) expired on Jan. 15.