Cruise ship passengers on the deck of the Holland America Noordam vie for the best look at glaciers and whales on July 16, 2019 during the ship’s traverse through Glacier Bay National Park. (Photo by Jacob Resneck)

Federal guidelines that have closely regulated the cruise industry during the COVID pandemic will expire on Saturday (1-15-22), and won’t be extended.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control, told the US Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Tuesday (1-11-22) that the Conditional Sailing Orders in effect for cruise lines since last year would be lifted, in favor of voluntary participation.

Dr. Walensky acknowledged that the decision to allow the order to expire was coming during the largest spike in infections since the start of the pandemic. Less than two weeks ago, the CDC issued a warning discouraging cruise travel regardless of vaccination status. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who sits on the committee, pressed Walensky for assurance that there would be no last-minute change of course.

Sen. Murkowski – I understand the Conditional Sailing Order is set to expire in a few days, in recognition that the companies have practices that adhere to – or even exceed – the guidance in the order. So, I guess I’d like some assurance from you that they can count on that. That this is clear guidance and messaging to those within the industry, and those who are counting on being able to have a season this coming summer.

Dr. Walensky – Thank you, Senator. I think the Conditional Sailing Order and the fact that the industry has stepped up and is now interested in – and exceeding, as you note – the compliance with the sail order, without the order necessarily needing to be in place is a real testimony to how well that has worked, and how we’ve worked collaboratively with the industry. What I can’t say is that, just over the last two weeks with omicron we’ve seen a 30-fold increase in cases on ships during this season, so while I anticipate that with ships following the conditional sail order, we will still continue to do oversight, watch, and do all the technical assistance and support in every single way. We anticipate that this order will not be renewed, and that the cruise ship industries will continue to understand that this is a really safe practice for those industries. What I can’t predict is what the summer will bring.

The CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order was first imposed as a “No Sail Order” in March of 2020, which entirely eliminated Alaska’s summer cruise season that year. In October 2020, the agency issued a “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order” that introduced strict guidelines for cruise ships to resume sailings. Most Alaskan ports saw a limited return of ships in 2021, once a legal barrier involving Canada was resolved.

Due to pent-up demand, and travel restrictions elsewhere in the world, the Alaska visitor industry has projected a record cruise season in 2022.