(6:15 p.m. EDT) -- Cruise travelers who sail from the U.S. on fully vaccinated ships will no longer be required to wear a mask indoors or maintain social distancing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said today.
In updated guidance to the CDC's Conditional Sail Order, the agency put in a new section, essentially giving more discretion to cruise lines that sail with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
In the amended section, the agency said that ships that agree to have at least 95 percent of crew and 95 percent of passengers vaccinated can tell both that they do not have to wear a mask or maintain physical distance in any areas.
Even on other ships, fully vaccinated passengers and crew can gather outdoors, including having meals and drinking, without a mask.
Other guidelines that have been loosened for vacccinated ships include allowing passengers to take independent shore excursions, as opposed to staying within a cruise ship bubble. Passengers who are not vacccinated are required to wear masks when going ashore; the agency recommends that the lines forbid unvaccinated passengers and crew from going ashore at all.
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All requirements that had previously been put on cruise ships for dining -- such as limiting seating and eliminating self-service buffets and drink stations -- are now only recommendations on ships with fully vaccinated travelers.
The guidance also says that cruise ship operators can designate areas onboard that are only accessible to fully vaccinated passengers and crew, such as casinos, bars, spas, entertainment venues and dining areas, with self-service buffets specifically mentioned.
The new guidance sets up a scenario that gives even more incentive for cruise passengers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, even if the ship itself doesn't have a requirement.
While many cruise lines have already stated they would restart with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, others -- particularly those that cater to families -- have said publicly that they would not be able to meet the 95 percent vaccinated threshold. The new guidance suggests that even on these ships, special areas could be carved out so those who are vaccinated could have a more normal experience without masks.
The guidance does not give any notes on how this could be enforced; it will be left up to the individual cruise lines. The CDC has recommended that the cruise lines implement wearable technology for contact tracing.
Cruise Critic will update this story once more information is available.