Cruising is in the news again with the recent no-sail order extension by the Centers for Disease Control. Travel and tourism has been hit hard during this global pandemic, but no form of travel has been devastated quite like cruising. I’m not going to discuss whether I think the no-sail order is good or bad. What choice did anyone responsible for public health have at the time the initial decision to pause passenger sailing was made? Experts call this a “novel coronavirus” for a reason, it’s new. We still don’t have a complete understanding of what it is and how it works, but one thing is for certain, it spreads easily. Close quarters with lots of people seem to help it move around. If you’ve been on a cruise before, you can see the challenge here.
Is it Possible to Sail Safely at This Time?
The short answer is, maybe. Personally, I do not see a return to “normal” mass market cruising in the absence of a vaccine. But there are finally some examples that point to the possibility that a limited and well planned re-start of some cruises can be accomplished safely. MSC Cruises appears to have found a path forward. The fundamentals of MSC’s plans are:
Universal health screening of guests prior to embarkation that comprises three comprehensive steps: a temperature check, a health questionnaire and a COVID-19 swab test. Depending on the screening results and according to the guest’s medical or travel history, a secondary health screening or testing will take place. Any guest who tests positive, displays symptoms or a temperature will be denied boarding. Following guidelines from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, guests traveling from countries categorized as high risk will be required to take a molecular RT-PCR test, to be done within 72 hours prior to joining the ship. All crew members will be tested for COVID-19 prior to embarkation as well as regularly during their contract.
Elevated sanitation and cleaning measures supported by the introduction of new cleaning methods and the use of hospital-grade disinfectant products.
Social distancing will be enabled through the reduction of the overall capacity of guests on board, allowing for more space for guests, approx. 10 m² (about 108 sq. ft.) per person based on 70% overall capacity. Venue capacity will be reduced, activities will be modified to allow for smaller groups and guests should pre-book services and activities to manage guest numbers. When social distancing is not possible, guests will be asked to wear a face mask, for instance in the elevators. The face masks will be provided daily to guests in their staterooms and will be available around the ship.
Enhanced medical facilities and services with highly qualified staff trained, the necessary equipment to test, evaluate and treat suspected COVID-19 patients and the availability of free treatment at the onboard Medical Center for any guest with symptoms. Dedicated isolation staterooms will be available to enable isolation of any suspected cases and close contacts.
Ongoing health monitoring will be conducted throughout the cruise. Guests and crew will have their temperature checked daily either when they return from ashore or at dedicated stations around the ship to monitor the health status of every guest and crew member. During this initial phase of operations, as a further enhanced measure of protection and to avoid risks to the health of guests and their fellow cruisers, guests will only go ashore as part of an organized MSC Cruises’ excursion. This means that MSC Cruises can protect their health while ashore with excursions that will be delivered with the same high standards of health and safety on board. MSC Cruises will ensure that transfers are properly sanitized and that there is adequate space. Tour guides and drivers will also undergo health screening and will wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
A contingency response plan will be activated if a suspected case is identified, in close cooperation with the national health authorities. The suspected case and close contacts will follow isolation measures and may be disembarked according to local and national regulations.
Obviously, if you can successfully board a ship with no infections, and keep guests from being exposed during their trip, you can cruise without spreading Covid. Whoa! Why didn’t anyone else think of that?!
My Thoughts on Going Forward with Cruising in the USA
Testing is key. A vaccine and herd immunity are key to resumption of most cruises. However, I think there is a way forward on a limited basis in the meantime. Frequent, rapid result testing will be the key to resumption of some cruises, and frankly, a restoration of all travel (more on that in a future post). Want people to feel comfortable traveling? Give them reasonable assurance that they aren’t being exposed to the virus. How do you do that? Testing, and not the kind that you have to wait a week for results.
Focus on the private islands as you re-start. Limiting guest and staff contact with potential exposure is paramount. The absolute best way to do this? Focusing on “private island” destinations. The majority of staff at these islands travel with the ship that’s visiting. There are some “local” staff, but the numbers are small enough that cruise lines can easily manage their testing protocols. Furthermore, guests enjoy these experiences.
Have a backup plan. No matter how much testing you perform, and how great you are at managing things, somehow, some way, somebody is going to test positive for the virus after you’ve left port. Hands down, I think the biggest driver of “fear” of getting on a cruise for most people will be the idea of being left out at sea with no way home. It is imperative that cruise lines have iron clad processes in place to isolate and care for positive cases on board, evacuate sick guests, and safely disembark healthy guests upon returning to port.
We Will Cruise Again
My last cruise was in February. I celebrated my 50th birthday with friends, and my wife and I remained on the ship for two additional cruises following the “birthday cruise.” I’m so glad we did. That trip also coincided with my last commercial airline flight (February 17th). As you know, things started “hitting the fan” shortly thereafter. While I have my doubts that I sail again in 2020, I’m watching things closely. I think it’s most likely to be 2021 before cruises set sail again, but if cruise lines and the governing authorities can work out a plan like MSC in Europe, I think it’s possible that at least a few cruises could set sail late this year.