The director of the maritime division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said passengers could be boarding cruise ships in U.S. ports as soon as July.

It all depends on how many people get vaccinated, how well COVID-19 variants can be kept at bay, and how fast cruise companies can secure agreements with local ports and health authorities in the cities they plan to visit, said CDC’s Martin Cetron in an interview.

Passengers have not boarded cruise ships in the U.S. since mid-March 2020, when the industry shut down following COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple ships. In recent weeks the cruise industry has dialed up its pressure on the CDC to allow for cruises to resume, citing July as a target. Cetron doesn’t think cruise companies are that far off, but it’s going to take some work to get there, and a lot of things have to go right, he said.

There’s a lot to be hopeful about. More than one-third of U.S. adults has received the COVID-19 vaccine, which so far appears to be effective against more deadly COVID-19 variants.

But Cetron cautions that the U.S. is still at the beginning of a vaccine supply and distribution race against known variants and those still being defined.

“The caveat is if I’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s that it’s hard to predict three weeks in advance — much less three months,” he said. “In an ideal setting where we don’t have an overwhelming fourth wave of variants that are unresponsive to our mitigation strategies, that if all things go well as planned...I think with following the guidance we laid out we can all probably get to a place of partial resumption of sailing in July.”

Under the CDC’s “conditional sail order,” cruise company executives must now pen agreements with the highest ranking officials of the ports and health authorities where they plan to visit. Those agreements should include routine processes — such as cruise terminal cleaning procedures — and worst-case scenario evacuation and hospitalization plans. Those agreements must then be submitted to the CDC for its approval before simulated cruises can begin, and then eventually the real thing.

But cruise companies would rather skip right to the cruising. In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said the company’s new vaccination requirement for all passengers and crew, combined with enhanced protocols like tests before boarding and bigger medical teams on board, are sufficient given the CDC’s new guidance that vaccinated people can resume air travel.

Still the CDC’s Level 4 warning against cruise travel — the agency’s highest — remains in place.

“[Air travel] is a shorter journey compared to spending a week day and night in a hospitality based industry in which the air handling environment isn’t exactly the same,” said Cetron. “It’s meals multiple times a day together, buffets, rooms, mixed crowds between the crew and the passengers, and the types of sleeping arrangements for the crew is very different than it is for passengers. So it’s a different setting, and of course this pandemic has taught us the risk of certain settings is different than others. Each of them has to be considered in the context of those environments.”

In most cases, the protocols touted by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and used by its competitors on cruises in other parts of the world during the pandemic are in line with those outlined by the CDC. Both promote cruising with fewer passengers, eliminating self-serve buffets, and requiring passengers and crew wear masks. But when it comes to testing, the two differ. Norwegian said it will require passengers to provide proof of a negative antigen test before boarding; the CDC said it will require companies to test all passengers and crew using PCR tests on embarkation and debarkation day.

Cruise Lines International Association called the CDC’s rules for port agreements “unduly burdensome, largely unworkable” in a statement Monday. Cruises have long resumed in other parts of the world including Singapore, China and Italy, hosting nearly 400,000 passengers since the pandemic began with minimal COVID-19 cases, according to CLIA.

More cruise lines will choose to scrap plans to cruise from U.S. ports in favor of the Caribbean ports, CLIA warned. On Tuesday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced it will operate seven-day Caribbean itineraries from Montego Bay, Jamaica, starting on August 7, 2021 on its Norwegian Joy ship and from La Romana, Dominican Republic, on its Norwegian Gem ship starting Aug. 15, 2021. Royal Caribbean Group and Crystal Cruises already have plans in place to restart cruises from The Bahamas and St. Maarten this summer.

Cetron’s advice to U.S. citizens planning to fly to the Caribbean for a summer cruise: “I would say hold on,” he said. “We’re really getting our best tools in place right now. Getting all Americans vaccinated is a game changer in this pandemic. I know that it’s really hard and I know pandemic fatigue is real; people just want out. We are so close. Give us some time.”

More time is difficult to imagine for Torin Ragin, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1416, which represents nearly 800 workers at PortMiami. Since the pandemic began, working hours on the cruise ship side of the port have plummeted. Hundreds of longshoremen are at risk of losing their medical insurance coverage in January 2022 unless they can work 700 hours by the end of September, an impossible task without the return of cruising.

“It’s the continued uncertainty after uncertainty after uncertainty,” he said. “It’s real. I see the faces; I get the calls; I’m on ground zero of this thing. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep people safe.”

After the CDC approves cruise company agreements with ports and local health authorities, companies will practice simulated voyages to make sure the health and safety protocols are working. Requirements for the simulated passenger voyages are under development, a spokesperson for the CDC said, and will be published in the next few weeks.

After the simulated voyages, companies will be approved to operate during the pandemic.

Cetron is confident the agency’s rules will reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and make cruises safer.

“Let’s get these things up and going, let’s beat this virus, and then I think people will really be able to enjoy the things they’ve been missing for the last year,” he said.

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