With large- and small-ship cruising underway in Europe, industry stakeholders are encouraged that success there can be replicated in the U.S.
Cruise executives pointed out the European activity when pleading with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to lift its No Sail Order, currently set to expire at the end of September but which is widely expected to be extended.
MSC Cruises and Carnival's Italian brand, Costa Cruises, each resumed operations with one ship out of Italy, with strict health and safety protocols and at lower capacity than normal.
Both planned to launch second ships in the Mediterranean this month and next, Costa on Sept. 19.
Photo Credit: Richard Pross/Shutterstock
The deadline to submit comments to the CDC's request for public input on the resumption of cruising is just days away.
Prior to the large-ship restart, the European-based lines Hurtigruten, SeaDream Yacht Club and Ponant Cruises had all been operating on the Continent as early as June, with only Hurtigruten reporting a large-scale Covid outbreak, which it blamed on its own internal mistakes.
Speaking to Miami-Dade County officials earlier this month, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said that the example being set in Europe should indicate to the CDC that, with the proper protocols in place, cruise lines should be able to resume service in the U.S., as well.
"We are so happy to see MSC and Aida and Costa cruise in Europe," Del Rio said. "It proves it can be done. I am 100% certain our protocols are second to none and it will be safe to cruise from America."
Rick Sasso, chairman of MSC Cruises USA, told the same lawmakers that his brand's Europe relaunch "shows that cruising can be done safely. The protocols we put in place for our first cruises in Europe are working effectively."
He added that MSC's relaunch was achieved in "close collaboration" with European authorities and that the line had gone "above and beyond" the required standards.
"We are ready to work with authorities in the U.S. directly to plan for a safe and successful start of cruising in the U.S.," Sasso said.
SeaDream Yacht Club plans to start seven-day sailings on its SeaDream I from Barbados in November.
One brand has already decided to take its model to U.S. cruisers: SeaDream this week said it will bring its 100-passenger SeaDream I to Barbados in November, to launch seven-day cruises visiting only St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, which are open to Americans.
Protocols will be similar to what they were in Norway: getting tested before flying into Barbados and again before boarding, and onboard social distancing. As of now, mask-wearing onboard will not be mandatory. SeaDream also said it is likely that the line will have to limit passengers to its own shore excursions.
The Norway-based line resumed cruises from Oslo in June. In early August, a Danish passenger who had disembarked the SeaDream I tested positive for Covid-19, but no other passengers or crew tested positive, and the line later said it was a false positive.
Health experts and cruise executives have said that the outcome of that case and three others gave the industry a chance to learn. And they were encouraged that when individual passengers have tested positive for Covid on three small ships in August, no further spread was found among passengers or crew.
"That ability to contain an infection if one occurs on a ship is critical," said Dr. Jewel Mullen, an associate dean at University of Texas Austin's Dell Medical School and an advisor to Carnival Corp. on its return-to-service plan. "I think it's really encouraging to see no subsequent spread.
"That is what you want to see happen," she continued. "That's why the planning can't just be about testing people who get on, because we know there is no test that will be 100% certain to keep people off ships who don't have symptoms and haven't gotten ill yet."
A combination of testing, onboard protocols and what passengers do before and after a cruise is all part of "the whole package" that Mullen said should be part of any successful cruising restart.
And while "protocols are really important," she said, "they have to be accompanied by the passengers' willingness to abide by them."
She said the lack of additional cases on those ships "maybe reflects that the passengers were also partners in upholding the protocols that the companies have put it place. You can look at it as a mandate or requirement, or as a contract or mutual commitment that travelers share with one another for everybody's well-being."
Whether Americans will be as willing to abide as closely to such rules as Europeans have is unknown. Mask-wearing is a political football in this country, with the anti-mask contingent labeling a mask mandate government overreach.
Mullen said this "fatigue" when it comes to protocols "can be the undoing of a whole bunch of good work to keep people safe."
Josh Friedman, CEO of California-based Josh Friedman Luxury Travel, thinks that mask adherence among Americans on ships would have to be compulsory and enforced. He said that while adherence is high among locals where he lives in Palm Springs, Calif., it's less so among tourists.
"It wasn't great, but now there are signs up all over town, and merchants are refusing entry to those without masks -- that's not going to happen on a ship," he said. "I would hope that the CDC requires masks, which would be the only way my core clients or I would sail. On the larger ships, they'd have to manage everything fairly tightly, or things could get out of hand pretty quickly."