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CDC removes pandemic-era travel warnings for cruises

Coronavirus is still on cruises, but it’s viewed as a lower risk for healthy travelers thanks to vaccinations and testing

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped cruise voyages from its list of coronavirus travel health notices Wednesday, the latest barrier to fall for an industry seeking a semblance of pre-pandemic norms. Cruise lines still require passengers to be vaccinated and test negative before boarding.

The CDC issues its notices “to alert travelers and other audiences to health threats around the world,” ranking destinations between Levels 1 and 4 based on the number and trajectory of new cases. It had included notices for cruise ships since March 2020, when cruise lines stopped sailing from U.S. waters for more than a year.

“CDC’s decision to remove the travel health notice for cruise travel was based on the current state of the pandemic and overall decreases in COVID-19 cases onboard cruise ships over the past several weeks,” CDC spokesman David Daigle said in an email.

The Cruise Lines International Association said earlier this year that it was “dismayed” that the CDC still published any kind of travel health notice for cruise ships. The association cheered the CDC decision Wednesday, saying it “recognizes the effective public health measures in place on cruise ships and begins to level the playing field, between cruise and similarly situated venues on land, for the first time since March 2020.”

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Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for industry giant Carnival Corp., called the move an “important step forward.” Newcomer Virgin Voyages said in a statement that the CDC’s removal of the notice “demonstrates the transition back into pre-pandemic operations” for the industry.

“While we feel this was a long time coming, we recognize this move as a demonstration of all of the hard work this industry has done to ensure that we’re offering the safest way to travel,” Virgin Voyages chief executive Tom McAlpin said in the statement. “It’s refreshing to see them meet us where we’re at, and clearly where our consumers are at considering the major uptick in demand we’ve seen.”

During the omicron surge in December, the public health agency warned that even vaccinated people should avoid cruises because the risk of catching the coronavirus was very high. As the wave subsided, the CDC eased its language, finally declaring earlier this month that the covid-19 risk was “moderate” and recommending that people be up to date with coronavirus vaccines before taking a cruise.

The CDC still urges travelers to be up to date with coronavirus vaccinations before taking a cruise, and it recommends that those who are immunocompromised or at increased risk of severe illness from the virus talk to their doctor about taking additional precautions.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters on board ships,” the agency’s website says. “If the virus is spreading on board a cruise ship, passengers and crew are at risk for infection, even if they are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines.”

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Through a voluntary program, the CDC displays the vaccination status and color status — indicating whether there are reported coronavirus cases on board — of participating cruise ships. Out of 107 ships sailing in U.S. waters, all but one are participating in the program.

Wednesday’s tally shows that while the number of cases has decreased significantly, cruise ships are still not coronavirus-free. As of Tuesday, 34 ships had reported enough coronavirus cases to meet the threshold for a CDC investigation; another 35 had reported cases, but the number was not high enough to merit an investigation.

Daigle said the agency would continue to evaluate its cruise program and the need for a travel health notice for cruises as the pandemic evolves.

“While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, travelers will make their own risk assessment when choosing to travel on an individual cruise ship, much like they do in all other travel settings,” he wrote in the email. “CDC recommends travelers check their cruise ship’s color status and vaccination status to make an informed decision before traveling on a cruise ship.”

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