October 31, 2020

Cruise Industry has Plan to Return to Sea

Cruise ships in Miami during a normal turnaround weekend.

By Shannon McMahon, Washington Post

(Sept. 23, 2020) On the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention withdrew updated covid-19 guidance stating that the coronavirus is airborne and can spread in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, a panel of experts assembled by cruise giants Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line outlined its recommendations to the CDC for a potential safe return to cruising.

The guidelines, which were filed on the final day of a two-month CDC window for public comments relating to cruise ship travel, include a new focus on “air management” in addition to lower capacities, shorter sailings, required testing and masks, and enhanced cleanings and medical staff on voyages.

The Healthy Sail Panel, which was formed in July, includes epidemiologists, cruise executives and former heads of federal agencies. The panel on Monday recommended 74 general health and safety best practices to cruise lines that seek to operate again.

With these initial recommendations “the pathway to initial resumption is made more clear,” said Brian Salerno, the Cruise Lines International Association’s senior vice president of maritime policy, in a news conference following the release of the recommendations. In the news conference, cruise industry leaders outlined what they think a timeline for a return to cruising, which has already occurred in Europe, might look like in North America. Some said they hope some late-2020 sailings can be salvaged, despite the CDC’s current no-sail order through Sept. 30 and the voluntary cruise line suspensions in place through Oct. 31.

Cruises will have fewer passengers, more medical staff

Cruises have long been associated with their massive ship sizes, fitting thousands into floating cities. But a coronavirus-era cruise will have fewer people on board and will initially be shorter in terms of time spent at sea. The panel recommends “trip lengths of no more than ten days at first,” since cruises any longer “usually entail stops at several ports, and introducing this level of risk early in the return to service phase would be inadvisable.”

Crowd control will require both fewer passengers and more medical staff than past sailings, with the panel calling for “cruises to sail at reduced capacity once sailing resumes as a way to facilitate physical distancing” of at least six feet.

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said also he expects to make modifications to certain cabins to create isolation rooms and potential “ICU” beds.

100 percent testing and mandatory masks

The aim of the new recommendations is to “maintain a healthy ‘bubble’ within which cruises can operate.” Cruise executives say testing 100 percent of passengers and crew before sailings will be key, with potential for retesting during sailings. Crew are required to isolate for seven days onboard before departure after receiving their negative test and should be retested before departure.

All passengers will be required to wear masks “whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained.”

You could be denied boarding (or re-boarding)

Shore excursions “must meet strict protocols agreed upon by cruise lines, health authorities, and destinations,” Adam Goldstein, CLIA global chair, said in a news conference about the recommendations on Monday. If cruisers don’t agree to the disembarkation terms of creating a bubble, or break that bubble, they won’t be permitted to sail.

The executive chairman of MSC Cruises, Pierfrancesco Vago, said “the resumption of cruising can take place in a healthy and safe way” with protocols like those enacted in Italy, where MSC has already resumed cruising and recently made headlines for removing bubble-breaking passengers.

New focus on air quality

Increasing fresh air and using newer ventilation systems is also a focus of the panel’s recommendations. Ships should “use a variety of indoor air management strategies aimed at reducing occupant exposure to infectious droplets/aerosols,” it states. “All cruise operators should upgrade the HVAC systems on their ships to, ideally, MERV 13 filters to minimize pathogen dispersal from infected guests and crew.”

The panel recommends that cruise operators pay special attention to areas where individuals would be most vulnerable to airborne transmission, like indoor common areas, and prioritize increasing the number of air changes per hour in those areas. “More specifically, isolation rooms in medical facilities on board should have six to 12 air changes per hour.”

U.S. cruise lines are eager to sail before the end of the year, if it’s safe

When cruise executives were asked about their timeline for a return to cruising, they both stressed the need for safety first and a hope to begin sailing later this year. CLIA president and CEO Kelly Craighead told reporters that the organization is hopeful some late-2020 sailings could depart if the CDC lifts its no-sail order by Nov. 1.

Cruise line CEOs were more measured. “When I think about resuming cruise operations I think about my elderly mother and my young children” being onboard, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank Del Rio said. He plans to take his family on the first Norwegian Cruise to sail. “We are very confident that the procedures … will allow us to cruise safely, but we’ve not put a time factor on it.”

Similar to tourism reopenings, slow and steady phases of capacity and health protocols will mark any return to cruising: The Healthy Sails Panel highlights “a formal process to review health and safety experiences related to covid-19 on cruises to enhance best practices and shared learnings for continuous improvement.” Included in that phasing is the potential for capacity to be gradually increased “as conditions permit.”

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that 197 million travel and tourism jobs could be lost by end of year, amounting to $5.5 trillion dollars of the world’s GDP, WTTC spokesperson Gloria Guevara said. Donald said cruise lines would likely need 30 days after receiving CDC permission to train staff, acquire testing equipment and enact changes on ships before departures can begin.

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