The cruise industry got hit by a perfect storm when the covid pandemic hit.
For an industry vulnerable to storms in general, it was a terrible combination of events that left the industry shuttered, while hotels, theme parks, arenas, and other venues all remained closed for much less time.
That's because the United States government only has limited control over how private industry operates.
A local municipality may shutdown industries like the way New York closed Broadway or California shut down its theme parks — but the federal government only has limited power for certain things.
When it comes to cruise lines, however, the federal government has an incredible amount of power.
That's because all the major cruise lines including Royal Caribbean (RCL) - Get Royal Caribbean Group Report, Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) - Get Carnival Corporation Report, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH) - Get Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Report flag their ships outside the U.S.
That allows the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to regulate how the cruise lines operate.
During the pandemic the CDC made an example of the cruise industry, It shut down cruising from North American between March 2020 and July 2021, ignoring the industry's extensive efforts to show it could operate safely.
Eventually the CDC relented, allowing limited-capacity sailings with a lot of rules beginning in early July 2021.
Now, most of those protocols have gone away as the CDC has lost its leverage with the rest of the country returning to pre-pandemic operating standards.
The cruise lines, however, still have certain rules in place and two key ones aren't going anywhere any time soon.
What Are Cruise Covid Protocols Like Now?
Royal Caribbean recently told its booked passengers that it plans to keep its current covid protocols in place through the end of September.
Currently, Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean all have similar Covid-19 rules.
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They require:All passengers 12 and over must be fully vaccinated at least two weeks before sailing.A vaccine card — not a digital copy — must be shown before boarding.All passengers must present a negative Covid test (which must be a proctored test) taken no more than two days before their cruise.
All three cruise lines have made masks optional while onboard.
In addition, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian all operate with a fully-vaccinated crew and have procedures designed to handle when passengers or crew members show Covid symptoms during a sailing.
When Will Cruise Lines Drop Vaccine and Testing Requirements?
Many passengers and future passengers want to know how long these protocols will be in place.
Some people who are not vaccinated want to return to cruising, while others who are vaccinated simply don't want the added hassle of proving it.
The cruise lines, of course, must balance people wanting a return to normal with other passengers who like sailing with fully-vaccinated passengers who have also recently tested negative.
Currently, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian all participate in a voluntary safe sailing program led by the CDC which sets testing and vaccination standards.
It's possible the CDC changes these requirements, but probably not any time soon, according to former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb, a physician who serves as chairman of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ SailSafe Council.
“I think that it’s likely to be a requirement that is in place through this fall and winter,” Gottlieb said.
“I’m talking more about CDC and the policy environment. I think that the public health officials, CDC, is going to want to see what the epidemiology of this disease is when it gets to a quote, unquote, ‘normal’ state."
Gottlieb said he does not expect the CDC to make any changes until it sees a period of time where no new variants flare up.
He said he thinks the federal agency will wait until 2023 and not even first thing next year.
“The short answer to the question is: I think this is kind of a springtime thing from a CDC policy standpoint," he said.
"They are going to want to make a decision around this after we get through another fall and winter with covid and see if we are truly in an endemic phase with this.”