Cruise lines are no longer required to follow shipboard COVID guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s framework for contingent sail orders, that was expanded and modified in October, expires Saturday, at which point the cruise ship health authority’s COVID guidance will become voluntary, the CDC confirmed to USA TODAY on Wednesday. This means cruise lines have a choicewhether or not to follow the instructions of the health authorities.

The health agency is “moving to a voluntary COVID-19 risk reduction program,” the CDC said in a statement shared by spokesman David Daigle.

The program provides guidance and recommendations for cruise lines to continue operations in a manner that promotes a safer and healthier environment for passengers, crew and affected communities, the CDC said.

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“Cruise ships operating in U.S. waters that elect to participate voluntarily in the program agree to follow all recommendations and guidance from the CDC under this program,” the CDC continued, noting that the recommendations aim to reduce the spread of COVID.

Vessels operating in US waters and sailing international routes that elect not to participate will participate classified as “grey” in the Health Authority’s “Cruise Ship Color Status”. Website to indicate that the CDC has not reviewed the health and safety protocols put in place by the operator of this vessel. Cruise ships that opt ​​out and operate only in US waters are not listed at all.

The CDC has shared the information about the voluntary program with members of the cruise industry and expects cruise lines to indicate whether or not they will participate “in the coming week.”

As of Monday, reported COVID cases had increased by 53% from a week earlier, with an average of more than 750,000 new infections per day, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.

The CDC added that more information about the volunteer program will be released Saturday when the CSO expires.

The story continues below.

CSO expires after CDC travel advisory

First the orderannounced in October 2020, was created by the CDC to establish a phased approach to safely resuming cruising in US waters.

The expiration of the CSO comes just over two weeks after CDC issued a warning against cruise travel on December 30 after spikes in COVID-19 cases on ships sailing from the US and around the world.

Cruise Lines International Association, the leading trade body for the cruise industry, said Wednesday that the CDC’s decision to advance its CSO’s transition to a voluntary program recognizes that the cruise industry maintains an “unwavering commitment” to COVID containment.

“Cruises are the only segment of travel and tourism that requires exceptionally high levels of immunization (approximately 100% compared to just 63% of the US population) and 100% testing of each individual prior to embarkation for both passengers and crew (21 times the U.S. rate on land),” CLIA said in a statement shared by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA’s vice president of strategic communications.

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The organization went on to say that cases are being identified as a result of “high frequency” testing and that the protocols in place are helping to contain the spread of COVID on board. The cruise industry is also the only travel sector that has continuously monitored, collected and reported COVID case information to the CDC, CLIA added.

CLIA said the industry will continue to be “guided by science and the principle of putting people first.”

While it doesn’t appear that CDC regulations will hold back or shut down the industry like they did in March 2020, cruise lines have taken steps of their own in light of Omicron, including canceling sailings.

Royal Caribbean International announced on Friday that it would suspend operations on several ships due to COVID-19, cancel some sailings and delay one ship’s return to cruise. and Norwegian cruise line canceled cruises on several of its ships last week as COVID-19 continues to rise with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

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Contributors: Elizabeth Wise, USA TODAY