Federal authorities said fully vaccinated people can resume recreational travel in the U.S. at “low risk,” and signaled a relaxation of operational guidelines for cruise ships, handing a major boost to the nation’s battered tourism industry.
Releasing its long-awaited travel guidance Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated individuals don’t need a COVID-19 test and don’t need to quarantine, when traveling domestically. They should still wear a mask and avoid crowds.
And in a separate statement, the CDC set out initial recommendations to help get cruise ships sailing again, including a timeline for vaccinating crew, and updating a color-coding system to classify whether a vessel should be clear to leave port.
The advice comes as the pace of inoculations in the U.S. quickens — more than 100 million people have been given at least one shot — even as more contagious variants threaten to ignite a new wave of COVID-19 cases and as millions of Americans hit the skies anyhow. Carriers including United Airlines Holdings Inc. are already flying at as much as 80% of capacity, and 1.6 million people passed through TSA checkpoints on Thursday, well above the 124,000 who did so a year before.
For international travel, people don’t need a test unless it’s required by their destination country and don’t need to quarantine once back in the U.S., but should be tested before boarding a return flight.
The head of the CDC said she still recommends against nonessential travel — even for vaccinated people — but that the agency has a duty to update its guidance as more science becomes available.
“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases. I would advocate against general travel overall,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing. “Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel; our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so. If you are vaccinated, it’s lower risk.”
She nonetheless held out the promise of travel in asking people to get vaccinated when they can. “We all want to return to the things that we love. Getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible and taking prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 is the path out of this pandemic and back to our everyday activities,” Walensky said.
COVID-19 cases have started rising again in the U.S., with 79,000 new cases recorded on Thursday. Walensky warned this week that Americans can’t abandon mitigation efforts, saying she is scared of “impending doom” as a fourth wave begins to crest.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, described the CDC’s new guidance as “a major step in the right direction” in an emailed statement. He said the CDC’s acknowledgment that vaccinations eliminate the need for testing and quarantine removes a key barrier to domestic travel.
The CDC is trying to balance its message — advising against travel while also announcing they considered it low risk.
“I do think that this is a bit of a messaging nightmare, unfortunately,” said Katharine J. Head, director of the graduate program in health communications and an associate professor in communications at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. “The message is, we’re not recommending travel, and we’re especially not recommending nonessential travel. But if you do have to travel, here are some guidelines.”
The CDC previously released guidance for what vaccinated people can do. It said fully vaccinated people can gather privately together without masks, or visit one unvaccinated household — such as vaccinated grandparents visiting the home of a child and grandchildren.
However, it urged vaccinated Americans to keep wearing masks in public and to avoid crowds. At the time, the CDC didn’t change its travel recommendations.
The CDC still discourages “nonessential domestic travel” by those who aren’t fully vaccinated. Those people should get tested one to three days before travel, and again three to five days afterward. They should stay home and quarantine for seven days after traveling, or 10 days if they don’t get a test, the CDC says.
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