CDC Approves New Guidelines for Cruising in US Waters COVID-19

CDC Approves New Guidelines for Cruising in US Waters COVID-19

Last Updated on November 22, 2021 by tripcentral

We know cruising is probably last on the list for Canadians thinking about vacations during the pandemic.  In fact, MSC has been sailing in Europe since August with two ships.  MSC is a massive, well capitalized shipping company that has a passenger cruise division, and their goal is to make a COVID free cruise experience – no matter what it costs.  Even though the costs and inconveniences are high, MSC’s thought was that they needed to start somewhere, to test, learn, report, and find the right model for cruising while we live with the pandemic, and consumers’ change in attitude post-pandemic.  MSC was first to do this with the cooperation of the Italian government.

Here’s a 3-minute video by ABC’s Good Morning America explaining the measures MSC was taking for European sailings in September 2020.

Here’s how cruising will shape up in US waters under the CDC’s (Centre for Disease Control) watch:


  • Crew will have to quarantine on board for 14 days when first arriving for a work term
  • Shore leave for crew will be minimized
  • Testing will be done for all crew prior to embarkation, and weekly thereafter
  • Training on safety, sanitization, social distancing, enforcement, testing
  • Special training for those handling those testing positive, quarantine

Passenger Experience:

  • Passengers will be PCR (lab) tested before embarkation, and before disembarkation
  • Social distancing will apply throughout the ship experience, dining rooms & entertainment
  • No self-serve buffets
  • Masks will be worn outside the cabin (silent outdoors, on deck)
  • Laundry (high temperature)
  • Minimize interaction with cabin stewards

Sanitation & Disinfectant

  • Surfaces cleaned with bleach-based disinfectant
  • High traffic areas such as handrails, doorknobs, elevator buttons cleaned frequently
  • Hand sanitizer throughout
  • Signage to encourage frequent hand washing, cough etiquette

Ports of Call

  • Written plan with each local health authority port of call
  • Policy about shore excursions, any restrictions
  • Evacuation, transportation, housing agreement for quarantine
  • Private Island ports of call

Testing facilities on board

  • Lab and equipment installed to PCR test passengers and crew
  • CDC inspected equipment, training, processes
  • Reporting requirements for CDC (aggregate, and positive cases)

Quarantine Facilities on board

  • Plans, processes, training to handle COVID positive patients
  • Single cabins assigned for positives and exposed individuals, ventilation
  • PPE for crew handling isolation
  • Food service delivery & pickup (plastic wrapped, plastic cutlery)
  • Individuals in quarantine will clean their own cabin, apply laundry
  • Plan for disembarkation at nearest port

Each cruise line will submit a plan to the CDC for a certificate of approval.  There will be an inspection of the plan, audit by third parties, simulated cruises, volunteer passenger cruises, and marketing guidelines to disclose risks approved by the CDC.  Ads and disclosures will start to sound like American drug commercials.  The CDC can revoke a line’s certification to sail in US Waters if there are violations.

Cruising is a massive market in the US, with many travelers boarding in their home port market, driving not far, or taking a short flight.  Almost all Canadians fly to take a cruise from the US, and Canada has extended the no sail order to February 2021 (not that there is much passenger cruising to/from Canada in winter).

We noticed no overall restriction or specific regulation on cruise ship occupancy.  We’ve heard that 60% of normal capacity will be a likely maximum in order to achieve the social distancing required.

No doubt, all this will cost more to deliver, and it is uncertain how this will affect cruise pricing.  Demand itself affects cruise pricing, and while there will be increased costs, it may take attractive pricing and inclusions to woo people aboard.   

Is physical distancing really possible on cruise ships?

At a 60% occupancy, it is entirely possible to maintain adequate distance.  If you have cruised before, think about how empty the ship feels while in port.  While more than 40% will normally go into port, the periods two or three hours prior to sailing out of port would give you the best visual of what a 60% full ship might feel like.

There should be no crowding in pool areas.  If deck chairs are spaced throughout all deck space – upper pool deck, rear decks, and sun decks, people could spread out like at resorts.  Alterations to beverage services, including loading up canned drinks in cooler bags should avoid normally crowded bar areas. 

A 60% full ship can absolutely physically distance meal services, especially if by extending hours of operation, adding in cabin/balcony dining, and keeping all restaurants open.  Eliminating the “seatings” to open dining and improving electronic table reservations by apps will also eliminate crowds and lineups on entry to the dining rooms.

Think of the amount of space in show lounges, bars, restaurants, and nooks throughout the ship that is unused during daytime and night.  Strategically spreading things out will work and avoiding such things as “sidewalk sales” and other past activities will help.

Theatres are difficult.  The need to spread out may either make the classic two show format unworkable, or alternatives such as advance tickets for select shows and spread out seating may be required.  

A far cry from the Diamond Princess (Japan, February 2020)

A single positive case started on the 14-day sailing that departed Yokohama on January 20th 2020.  There was obviously no advance testing, no quarantine process in place, full occupancy, and a completely unprepared cruise line and port authority.  Instead of evacuating the passengers and crew to onshore quarantine facilities, the ship was stuck in port with all aboard until disembarkation began on February 27 and completed March 1– a full 5-6 weeks!  By this time, 712 passengers and crew out of 3,500 onboard were infected (a 20% positivity rate).    Some US states now exceed that positivity rate.

What might the positivity rate have been had the MSC or CDC guidelines been in effect back in January for the Diamond Princess?  Obviously, it may not have happened at all, and it certainly would have been contained and controlled.  All involved acknowledge that quarantining the ship in port for so long was probably the worst decision they could have made, in fact, increasing the risk of community spread in Japan itself.

Our take

This is going to take some time for cruise lines to sort out.  The process of developing lab testing, negotiating with local health authorities in ports of call, training staff, modifying facilities on board, running simulated sailings, and getting approved by CDC will all take time.

Wait and see is the best course of action for anyone contemplating a winter 2021 cruise.  Airline schedules and compliance with these new rules are uncertain, and we would not recommend booking something for winter or early spring until this is more certain.  It might otherwise turn into cancellations with credits and further re-booking.

We do think there is much less risk booking cruises for summer and fall 2021.  This provides enough time for cruise lines to implement the CDC guidelines, and likely see distribution of vaccines into the general population.  While the promise of distribution in Q1 2021 is aggressive, by Q2 we should see vaccines having an impact on the demand for bookings. 

Once again, here’s that Good Morning America segment on MSC’s sailings in September 2020:


  1. Nice article about cruises and resorts

  2. Can’t wait to resume cruising. Please keep the prices in check for retirees!

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