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Are cruise lines waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine before resuming cruising?

December 19, 2020 Cruise, Headline News No Comments Email Email

Aaron Saunders, a contributor on Cruise Critic says that with numerous cruise lines suspending their 2021 seasons into spring – and in some cases, beyond — is it possible that the companies, mainly in the USA, are simply waiting to restart operations until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available?

It’s a plausible theory, although no cruise line executive has said that publicly, with as of early December, numerous lines have cancelled voyages into March and April, while some have postponed sailings into June and even the fall for select vessels.

While the lines have cited the restart regulations put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the reason for the early 2021 cancellations, it’s no secret that the current restart conditions put forth by the U.S. government agency are lengthy, with hurdles that will take months to implement.

If approved vaccines do begin this month in several countries, as is currently projected, it might be easier for the lines to wait, with Saunders asking whether the clues are in the cancellations as one potential clue toward this line of thinking could lie in the fact that numerous cruise lines have all picked similar restart dates: March 1 and April 1.

The CDC states that vaccines for COVID-19 should begin rolling out to U.S. citizens by December, while the majority of adults wishing to get vaccinated should be able to do so later in 2021 and waiting until at least some important segments of the populace are vaccinated could also allow for a change in the current climate surrounding travel.

Currently, new COVID-19 cases in the United States are the highest in the world, with over 100,000 new cases being reported each day and almost 1,000 new deaths per day, with the US having the most active COVID-19 cases in the world, with over five million infections, and the highest number of deaths, at over 273,000.

The CDC has actively discouraged people from traveling and placed the highest warning level possible on cruising, even though no ships are currently sailing and while travel still took place over the Thanksgiving holiday, it was not seen as the responsible choice for Americans and similar messages are being broadcast for the December holiday season.

The distribution of a vaccine could start to mitigate those numbers, if the daily infection rate lowers and cases throughout the United States become more stable, acceptance of travelling and cruising could improve, giving lines the social license they need to successfully restart.

Whether it makes sense for cruise lines to hold off all revenue operations until a vaccine can be distributed is a twofold question.

Firstly, it would behove cruise operators to start on the right foot, with no operator wants to become the poster child for COVID-19 infection, particularly given the negative coverage towards the cruise industry at the start of the global pandemic.

Secondly, waiting for a vaccine, or even requiring potential passengers to be vaccinated before cruising takes much of the risk out of this activity, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or who are front-line workers.

But waiting for COVID-19 to be fully eradicated before cruising resumes isn’t all that likely, with cruise lines burning through cash and acquiring massive debt loads in order to stay afloat in what is more or less a zero-revenue environment, therefore chances are good that lines will restart while the pandemic is still active throughout the globe, though hopefully brought under control with vaccinations.

Cruising had successes in Europe over the summer, when transmission rates were lowered and new health and safety protocols were put into place and likewise, cruising has resumed in Asia, specifically Taiwan and Singapore, after those countries cut their virus cases.

Even within the US, two Maine schooners were able to have a shortened summer season, thanks to testing requirements and the fact that the ships drew passengers who were already fairly cautious about their behaviour before boarding and while onboard, but the precautions aren’t fool proof when ships draw passengers from a populace with high caseloads.

Just look what happened on SeaDream Yacht Club in November, when a positive COVID-19 case slipped through the line’s rigorous double-testing requirement, due to an American passenger.

Even if vaccines lower the transmission rate, expect the now common-sense daily protocols such as masking, testing and social distancing, to remain part of cruising in 2021, at least when the industry initially begins.

In its “Framework for Conditional Sailing” released October 30, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes no mention of either a vaccine requirement for cruise lines, nor does it specify what would happen to its complex list of requirements cruise lines must abide by should a vaccine for COVID-19 become readily available.

The question is whether approval by the FDA of an authorized vaccine could, in turn, significantly alter the CDC’s findings against cruise operations within the United States and although neither the CDC nor cruise lines have confirmed this, it is possible that the prevalence of a readily-available vaccine could aid in the resumption of cruise, making the prospects of an early-spring restart look more promising.

Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain, speaking on the FDA’s upcoming meetings, in a video address to travel partners said, “While we can’t pre-judge the outcome, people are pretty optimistic,” and “The announcement about the efficacy of the new vaccines, and the imminence of their likely approval…it’s truly historic,” adding, “The enormous effort of so many people has accomplished the unimaginable.”

Fain also indicated that these developments, coupled with health and safety guidelines, could be encouraging for return-to-cruise in the near term, adding, “It also seems that with the newest advances, the ramp-up (to sailing) may be faster than many had feared.”

An edited report by John Alwyn-Jones

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