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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Framework for Conditional Sailing Order in October 2020 that remains in effect until Nov. 1, 2021. The framework was established to allow cruise lines to resume activity after being shut down for a year by the global pandemic. The order applies to passenger operations on cruise ships with the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers in waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction. 

Although the CDC says it would prefer if people didn’t cruise at all, this action has been more aggressive than in Canada, which has announced its cruise season has been canceled for the second straight year in 2021. The ban extends until Feb. 22, 2022.

“Returning to passenger cruising is a phased approach, and our current focus is on the protection of crew and working with cruise lines to implement the initial phase requirements of testing all crew and developing onboard laboratory capacity,” said Jason McDonald, CDC media spokesman, in an email.

“Future orders and technical instructions will address additional activities to help cruise lines prepare for and return to passenger operations in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers and crew members, including simulated voyages, certification for conditional sailing and restricted voyages,” he added.

The new technical instructions will give cruise ports and terminals direction in providing further protocols and programs to help protect passengers, crews and port employees when cruising resumes.

However, ports and terminals have not been sitting idly by since the pandemic struck North America more than a year ago. Ports in the U.S. have been following the CDC’s lead and developing protocols and programs to reduce the COVID-19 risk.

The Florida Ports Council, which provides leadership for the state’s 14 deep-water seaports, has been working diligently with its membership on pandemic response. 

“While maintaining a state of readiness for cruising to resume, our ports are diligently protecting workers through enhanced sanitation procedures, personal protective equipment and mitigation response, including capital infrastructure retrofitting equipment, improved HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) filters and hands-free building access,” said Doug Wheeler, the council’s president & CEO.

One major impact of the pandemic has been the devastating financial loss to the entire cruise industry. The council is also working to address this issue.

“We continue to work with our fellow U.S. seaport associations to press for emergency relief for U.S. seaports, including cruise ports,” said Wheeler. “Unfortunately, seaports have been left out of prior emergency relief legislation. The good news is that Congress created the Maritime Transportation System Emergency Relief Program last year. Unfortunately, it was not funded within the omnibus bill passed by Congress at the end of the year. We are hopeful that funding for the program will be included in this next relief package.”

On the Great Lakes, Port Milwaukee has, since April 2020, been proactively addressing the pandemic through various means, says Jazmine Jurkiewicz, the port’s Trade Development Representative. 

“Port Milwaukee has continued to make preparations for the 2021 cruising season and beyond,” Jurkiewicz said. All regulations imposed by the CDC and Department of Transportation have been closely monitored and adhered to. While not a regulating body in the United States, Transport Canada is also a major factor in the cruising industry for the Great Lakes and has been closely monitored as well.”

Port Milwaukee has also purchased a new mobile X-ray trailer to reduce the physical interaction between passengers and security teams clearing luggage. It is expected to be delivered in July. Jurkiewicz said the port is also “continuing collaboration and coordination with the Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative members to distribute information effectively to local tourism organizations.”

At the municipal government level, the city of Milwaukee Health Department has performed detailed evaluations to examine the exposure risk at the port and all recommendations have been followed.

On the West Coast, the Port of San Diego, California’s third-largest cruise gateway to the Mexican Riviera and other major southern destinations, has made pandemic response a big part of its daily routine.

“We will be working with local health officials, cruise line officials and other authorities to put the needed infrastructure in place to resume operations when the time comes,” said Adam Deaton, the port’s Senior Trade account executive.

“One possible plan is to open a 9,000-square-foot area of the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal that would enlarge it to better respect and manage social distancing,” 

Deaton continued: “We expect, through the CDC framework process, to reopen cruise and guidelines. We anticipate those guidelines will include extra cleaning and disinfection protocols, face covering requirements, social distancing protocols, staggered and scheduled cruise passenger check-ins, plexiglass use to provide safety barriers between passengers and terminal workers, availability of hand sanitizer and handwashing, temperature checks and more.”

He added that all inbound vessels must notify the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection 14 days ahead of their scheduled arrival in San Diego, even if no one on board is exhibiting symptoms and, of course, to notify the two agencies immediately if anyone aboard a vessel is exhibiting symptoms of communicable diseases such as COVID-19.

At the Port of Galveston, where cruise operations provide 65 percent of annual port revenues, the response has been in a serious and rapid fashion.

“We’ve been working with the cruise industry and others for the safe, sustainable return of cruising in 2021,” says Rodger Rees, port director and CEO, Galveston Wharves. “We’ve invested more than $73,000 in health and safety enhancements at our two cruise terminals in preparation for cruise activity ramping up,” 

Galveston, the fourth most popular cruise port in North America, immediately began, along with cruise and shipping lines, to monitor daily life at Galveston Wharves.

Early in the pandemic, Galveston Wharves hosted a multi-agency tabletop exercise to review and coordinate planning, responses and communications among the local, state and federal entities that would respond if the coronavirus impacted the Galveston maritime industry.

That initial meeting laid the groundwork for a longer and continuous planning process for ports and terminals. 

With the possibility of some cruise lines restarting their business, cruise lines and ports are exploring more robust screening protocols, expanded cleaning and sanitation practices and comprehensive shipboard prevention, surveillance and response measures.

Galveston Wharves is planning a number of changes in its two cruise terminals, including touchless bathroom fixtures, plexiglass shields in customer service areas and enhanced air handling systems plus various other health and safety concepts are being explored.

In 2019, the cruise industry had a $1.6 billion economic impact in Texas, making it extremely vital to the Lone Star State.

Port Tampa Bay’s response to COVID-19 was, like others, swift.

“We responded immediately and swiftly to the pandemic,” said Paul Anderson, Port Tampa Bay’s president & CEO. “Prior to the CDC’s no-sail order, we had already begun disinfecting our cruise terminals and increasing daily cleaning efforts.” 

The port says it will follow the guidance of the CDC and individual cruise lines on whether they will require COVID-19 tests for passengers.

In addition, Anderson said, “Port Tampa Bay has taken extra precautions to keep our cruise terminals clean and disinfected and we sanitize them with an EPA-approved chemical to prevent the spread of COVID-19 every 30 days. We will continue to take this precaution when cruises resume.”

Port Tampa Bay is “working closely with our cruise line partners to follow the updated CDC guidelines for the conditional sailing order and we are prepared to welcome them back when they are ready,” Anderson added.


In the year following his appointment to port director and CEO in January 2018, Port of Galveston’s Rodger Rees proved that with the right kind of leadership, significant operational changes can be quickly implemented without compromising the quality of production. When Rees first joined the port’s team, he immediately recognized areas in dire need of change–and quickly. Without wasting time, Rees took a step back to analyze the best way to continue operations while maximizing resources. A testament to Rees’ first year success is through the nearly $6 million profit the port recorded for 2018, when the original budget forecast anticipated breaking even.

“The port wasn’t operating at its fullest,” Rees explains. “Over the past year, we’ve really made a lot of strides. We’ve restructured our operations on the water front and our administration. To me, that’s an example of allowing people to do their jobs. Many times, people have been held back in positions and when I came here, I said, ‘Here’s your chance’ and people excelled.”

When Rees evaluated the company’s operational structure, he identified stagnation as one of the root issues hindering the port from performing at its highest capability. Tackling operational inefficiencies started with improving senior management’s operations approach, ultimately enabling and motivating workers to do their jobs without obstructions from leadership. These changes directly impacted the level of quality delivered to customers.

“We’ve been very customer-oriented since I got here,” Rees says. “Our customers are the cargo companies, the stevedores, all those people. As a port, we are really building those relationships because that’s the long-term piece that really brings in the businesses–they’re confident the port can perform.”

Beyond tackling the structure and operations of the Port of Galveston, Rees saw an immediate need for automation implementation and successfully implemented an entire software platform in just three months.

“When I came here, we had a very old operating software and accounting packages,” he recalls. “I was very familiar with a company that had a software package that had a very robust port management module built into the software. In September, we said, ‘Can we do it?’ and our staff said, ‘Let’s go!’ and we implemented a brand-new software package in 90 days.

“We have also been able to get out of the paper parking business and have installed an automated parking system. That all ties into the new accounting system as well as we’ve automated our ERP back office systems, and now our new parking systems.”

Rees stresses the importance of internal operations and pride as the company attributes a lot of its success to its employees and their “can-do” outlook.

“We are able to self-perform and that’s helped our bottom line,” Rees says. “We’re excited by the fact that these guys have stepped up and taken pride in their work, and we’re doing a lot of tasks and jobs that ordinarily would’ve been done with a third party. The two biggest things have been the total revamping of our back-office ERP system as well as the implementation of a fully automatic parking system.”

Looking at Rees’ history, one might find it surprising to learn that he did not start his career in the Ro-Ro port industry. He boasts 25 years managing his own security business before switching gears as a consultant to smaller public companies. At the time, Rees lived about four miles from Port Canaveral, which he socially frequented. Through the social relationships developed over time, Rees sought the opportunity to provide his expertise when the port expressed the need for a chief financial officer.

“The good fortune from my standpoint was they were looking for non-port personnel,” Rees says. “In other words, the CEO there was a developer and Port Canaveral was heavily into new cruise terminals and renovations of old terminals, and he was looking for a financial person who understood the financial markets. I spent five years over there in the financial business.”

Bringing it all together, Rees identified what the future holds for the Port of Galveston and where the potential lies.

“This port is perfectly located for the cruise business. The cruise business is going to be what enables this port to really enhance and revitalize the infrastructure in the cargo business here. Since I’ve been here, we’ve signed deals with Royal Caribbean, which is going to build a $100 million terminal here, and we’ve extended our partnership with Disney Cruise Lines, which we just confirmed a 10-year deal with for them to expand. They’ll be doubling the number of cruises out in Galveston.

“What I see is the cruise business really complementing our cargo business, simply because this will enable us to do some things that we weren’t able to do to really grow our cargo business. We’re the only ones in the western Gulf, out of the 13 ports in the Houston complex, that has cruise business.”