Bruce Nierenberg on the Healthy Sail Panel proposal to the CDC: A very good start

Bruce Nierenberg, president of Bruce Nierenberg & Associates, was founder and CEO of Victory Cruise Lines, former CEO of Delta Queen Steamboat Line, former president of Costa Cruise Lines -- North America, former CEO of Premier Cruise Lines, former CEO of SeaEscape/Scandinavian World Cruises and former executive vice president of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Last week, the Healthy Sail Panel, comprising health, maritime and other experts assembled by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, provided the CDC with a comprehensive proposal of what should be done to restart cruising in this prevaccine period of the pandemic.

They have proposed credible solutions for credible concerns. It’s a great step forward.

The time has now come for Carnival Corp. and MSC to join Royal and Norwegian and create a united front by endorsing the panel’s recommendations. Health and sanitation are not marketing or competitive battlefields; they’re the basic requirement to be a hospitality provider.

It’s not important who does it first. It is important that everyone does it as soon as they can. The CDC has several issues to deal with in addition to cruise line proposals, so the more unified the industry is in backing a serious detailed proposal (the Healthy Sail Panel has 74 specific recommendations), the easier it will be for the CDC to provide the green light for the resumption of sailing. On the other hand, asking the agency to look at five to 10 different proposals will only waste time.

Here are the areas that, in my opinion, the Healthy Sail Panel got exactly right, or which just needs a tweak or two.

1. Don’t let anyone onboard who might have the virus: The cruise lines must not let any passengers or crew board the ship if they might be infected. This is a must for prevaccine cruise service to safely resume. Rapid, reliable, economic, practical, personal tests must be given to all passengers and crew before they get on the ship once they arrive at the terminal. The Healthy Sail Panel proposal, which requires tests to have been between five days and 24 hours before boarding, needs to tighten up this timing. If a passenger lives in New York or Chicago and flies to Miami for embarkation, even if they tested negative a few days before leaving home they will encounter many exposure points, from ground transport to baggage handling to airport check-in to the flight to baggage claim to ground transport to the ship. The lines must also ensure that, once passengers or crew have tested negative at the terminal, they cannot leave the building before they board.

2. There must be solid plans for what to do if an outbreak occurs onboard: This was one of the best thought-through and detailed plans in the Healthy Sail Panel proposal. It is also a primary concern of the CDC.

3. Controlled port visits:  As outlined in the panel report, there is a need to control the port experience for the passengers. There should be additional Covid testing and temperature taking once a day during the cruise, and if passengers go on a shore excursion, it should be done before they reboard the ship. There are also wearable devices that can monitor passenger and crew temperature to watch for spikes.

4. Increase of medical staffing on the ships: This will be a big step forward.

5. Pre- vs. post-vaccine: There is a recognition among the cruise lines that some of the changes in the Panel recommendations will become permanent standard operating procedures while others may be modified after a vaccine becomes available. Once a vaccine is generally available, being vaccinated should become a mandatory requirement for boarding. If, for medical reasons, a vaccine can’t be administered, other stringent protocols for that guest should stay in place. Plans could even be made to include the cost of the vaccine in the cost of the cruise, which would be well received as a clear indication of how seriously the cruise lines take passenger and crew safety.

There were a few areas of the panel recommendations that I felt could use improvement:

1. A comprehensive approach to safer air onboard is still lacking: The use of MERV air filters as suggested by the panel is not the best solution to prevent airborne spread of the virus. Humans breathe in and out 23,000 times a day, and 20% of the population has respiratory issues such as allergies and asthma. Individuals also have increased health risks as they age. Providing higher levels of air quality indoors is a requirement, not an option, and it will also help prevent outbreaks of norovirus. The cost of canceling one cruise is higher than investment in better air filtration and circulation.

2. Cleaning surfaces: There needs to be a redundant attack on virus and volatile organic compounds that are everywhere on ships, hotels, airplanes, etc. Coupling better air quality with an active surface treatment can really reduce the likelihood of passengers and crew being exposed to virus as well as reduce potential allergic reactions. This is not a significant expense.

3. Laundry: Similarly, the lines should use the latest chemistry available for laundry services onboard. This may actually decrease costs, as the newest detergents increase the life of the ships’ textiles and, when discharged, cause less environmental damage. This is particularly important when sailing in sensitive regions like Antarctica, the Galapagos and the Arctic.

4. Returning ships to service: I agree that, for big ships, starting out with short cruises to private islands is a safe way to reenter service and fine tune procedures. It minimizes risk both for passengers and local populations. However, destination experiences are one of the most important components of modern cruising, so the industry must make plans to accelerate the return to multiple destination cruising beginning in late winter 2021. This is the feature that is most attractive to repeat cruisers and affluent travelers. Returning to markets such as Europe in a practical and safe manner will accelerate the return of normal booking levels for both cruise lines and the travel advisors who support them.

So, when will the CDC allow the resumption of sailing? The agency will digest CLIA’s plans and the recommendations of Royal and Norwegian over the next few weeks. I believe they will then meet with the cruise lines and work out an agreement that will be announced by end of October, possibly earlier. The lines likely already have resumption plans in place and will announce their startup plans from U.S. ports by November and begin sailing as a practical matter by January.

The first itineraries likely will feature megaships headed to the Bahamas Out Islands. 

I never thought that when I started the first Out Island cruises with Norwegian Cruise Line in 1977 that they would be used some day as the testing grounds for the restart of the entire U.S.-ported industry. I believe these sailings will prove to be the best way to get the wrinkles out of what is a very solid proposal. 

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