The nightmare cruises of spring 2020 are back as Omicron sends passenger case rates soaring. Yet the CDC is poised to loosen the industry’s Covid leash, saying cruise lines are now positioned to police themselves.

On Saturday, despite a 30-fold increase in on-board Covid cases, with cruise ships being turned away at ports and passengers getting sick, the CDC plans to lift all of its Covid restrictions on the cruise industry.

91 cruise ships were reporting enough Covid cases to warrant a CDC investigation, which can result in increased reporting requirements and in extreme circumstances can warrant ordering a ship returned to port. Of the 109 cruise ships the CDC is tracking, only 12 are reporting zero Covid cases on board. Participation in these reporting requirements once the order is lifted will be voluntary but all major cruise lines have pledged to continue.

But unlike spring of 2020, calls to shut down cruises again are muted. Some lines had already canceled cruises for the 2022 season. Ships reporting significant numbers of Covid cases are barred from docking at many ports. And the major players in the industry mandate vaccines for everyone on board, including passengers — a standard that few industries can boast.

“With broader access to vaccines, we are, thankfully, in a different place than we were back in 2020,” said House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.), who was a major critic of the cruise industry’s safety rules at the onset of the pandemic. “However, CDC … must continue to closely monitor the risk to cruise passengers and continue to provide science-based guidance.”

Even though CDC is ending its Covid restrictions on the cruise industry, the major industry players say they plan to keep their vaccine protocols in place.

The Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s lobbying arm, said their clients are the only segment of the travel and tourism industry that requires vaccination for almost all passengers and crew, and tests everyone on board.

“Further, cruise is the only sector that continuously monitors, collects, and reports case information directly to the CDC,” said Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA’s vice president of strategic communications and public affairs. “Given this oversight and the uniquely high vaccination rate required on board, the incidence of serious illness is dramatically lower than on land, and hospitalizations have been extraordinarily rare even during a time when landside hospitalizations are peaking.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) are opposed to rolling back the conditional sail order. Blumenthal called for a halt to all cruises on Dec. 28.

“Prematurely transitioning to a voluntary program could allow companies to skirt necessary public health measures,” Blumenthal and Matsui wrote to Walensky on Thursday, and urged the CDC to extend prohibitions on cruise ships.

Federal policy and court fights

The cruise industry won another battle in August, when a federal judge blocked a Florida law that prevented cruise lines from requiring passengers to prove they’re vaccinated, effectively allowing the industry to impose their own vaccine mandates. Conversely, the state of Florida was victorious in court in July after it challenged the validity of the conditional sail order, though the major cruise companies said they would follow the now voluntary rules.

“I don’t believe any level of government should be telling businesses that you have to have a vaccine or that you can’t ask if you’ve had a vaccine,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) who said both decisions, a split decision for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, were beneficial for the industry and cruise passengers.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said during a committee hearing this week that revoking the conditional sail order was critical for communities in her state that rely on summer cruise revenue to survive. She pushed Walensky to say publicly that the expiring rules would not be reimposed anytime soon.

Walensky responded that she does not anticipate reinstating the conditional sail order, but that predictions are impossible.

“We anticipate this order will not be renewed and that the cruise industry will continue to understand that this is a really safe practice for those industries,” Walensky said. “What I can’t predict is what the summer will bring.”

A balanced approach

The current state of cruises in the age of Omicron has presented challenges for health officials like Encarnacion, U.S. Virgin Islands health commissioner.

On Dec. 28, Encarnacion denied entry to two cruise ships into the USVI because their positivity rates on board were above 1 percent, the threshold the territorial government allows for visiting ships.

Encarnacion said the CDC’s requirement that cruise ships report positive cases on board, which remains in place despite the end of the conditional sail order, allows her to make informed decisions that balance public health concerns with the benefits an industry that directly employs thousands of USVI residents and contributes tens of millions of dollars to the economy.

“You have to balance finance with health,” Encarnacion said. “We’ve learned how to balance that quite well.”

Encarnacion said though her agency’s conversations with the cruise industry were at times demanding and “tough,” she understands that ships coming to the USVI contain passengers and crew who are nearly 100 percent vaccinated, her biggest concern for public health.

“The cruise lines know what the risk factors are,” Encarnacion said. “This is not only a risk to our community, but it’s a very, very high risk to them.”

Shalala said now that cruises are able to sail, they have a business incentive to tamp down on cases as much as possible. And this far into the pandemic isn’t the time for the federal government to shut things down and inject more uncertainty for the cruise industry’s employees.

“It doesn’t work for them if we turn the spigot off and on,” Shalala said.