You’d be forgiven if you feel like you’ve seen this movie before. A Centers for Disease Control “No Sail Order” is set to expire soon, and the public is left wondering if it will be extended — or allowed to expire, ushering in the eventual return of cruising.
So far there have been four orders from the CDC: the original halt of cruises, followed by three extensions. The latest extension was announced on September 30. It lasts just a month until the end of October.
Now, we sit just a week from the end of the current iteration of the “No Sail Order,” and the question on everyone’s mind is if the CDC will let it expire, effectively removing the biggest hurdle to cruises returning to the United States.
So will the order be lifted? Or will the CDC issue another extension? A few weeks ago, an expiration and a resumption of cruising looked possible, or even likely. Now, we’re not so sure.
Positive Developments to Lift the Order
In the past month or two, there have been several promising developments in the cruise industry that made it seem more likely that cruises could start relatively soon.
For one, cruise lines — most notably Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, who formed the “Healthy Sail Panel” — laid out recommendations for keeping passengers healthy as they look to return to cruising from the U.S.
These new protocols represent the backbone of showing that cruising can return in a world where millions have gotten sick. They present drastic changes, with everything from limited capacity on ships to improved air filtration to improved medical procedures.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the industry as a whole committed to requiring testing of 100% of passengers and crew before they get on the ship. While that’s not a guarantee that someone can’t board and later have a positive case, 100% testing isn’t anywhere else in the travel industry.
Second, cruises have started back in Europe. There are now multiple lines sailing, including MSC, Costa, and AIDA. Tens of thousands of passengers have sailed while cruise lines gain valuable experience in implementing new health policies. It’s also an opportunity to show health authorities around the world how the new procedures work to keep cruise passengers safe.
Finally, the past month has seen several optimistic comments from cruise line executives. Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said during an industry conference that he is optimistic (though not certain) that his company will be sailing again sometime this year. Royal Caribbean’s CEO, Richard Fain, echoed a similar statement as well.
Having the executives who are arguably the most knowledgeable about the current atmosphere between cruise lines and the government offer up such optimistic opinions is certainly promising.
Major Hurdles to Overcome
Unfortunately, as we mentioned, there have been a few developments recently that make it seem more likely to us that an extension of the order could happen again.
First and foremost is a sharp rise in the number of COVID cases in the United States. Since the last peak in July, cases trended down for weeks before bottoming near the end of September.
Now, cases are once again soaring. Recent highs near 75,000 new daily cases match what was seen during the summer. There is also fear that cooler weather will lead to even more cases in the coming weeks and months.
“The pandemic is not over,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said on Wednesday. “Here in the United States, we’re approaching a critical phase.”
Given that Dr. Redfield reportedly wanted to extend the “No Sail Order” until February 2021 when the last extension was announced, his comments and the rise in cases don’t bode well for cruising to return.
On top of that, while the return of cruising has been largely successful, it hasn’t gone perfectly.
Earlier this month, a ship sailing in Europe — Costa Diameda — reportedly had COVID cases on board. In total, eight passengers were said to have tested positive, and the cruise line decided to cut a trip short to allow passengers to return home.
On one hand, the outbreak seems to have been identified quickly and kept from spreading. On the other, hoping to get a return to cruising in the U.S. right on the heels of cases on a ship in Europe seems to be a big hurdle.
Even some Wall Street analysts say that cruises won’t resume from the United States until March 2021, according to Barron’s.
Our Opinion: An Extension Seems Likely, But Not Certain
There is no knowing at this point if the CDC “No Sail Order” will be extended again, or lifted. If we had to guess, we’d say another suspension of at least a month seems most likely given the sharp rise in cases.
However, even if the order is extended another month, it would seem to mean very little right now. All the major cruise lines — including Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean — have already delayed their returns until at least December. This allows more time to prepare, including re-crewing vessels, training on new protocols, and prepping vessels for passengers.
An extension longer than that, however, would mean cruises don’t return until 2021.
Whether cruises return before the end of the year as the lines have hoped or not remains to be seen. By this time next week, however, we should have a much better idea of when they could be back.