Cruise panel: Ships may be safer than shore

Fighting coronavirus
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“Could taking a cruise potentially be a safer way to vacation in a Covid environment than going to London? I think it might.”

The speaker, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and co-chair of a panel of public health experts put together by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. to develop health and safety protocols for the cruise industry to resume operations. 

He made the statement during a Zoom call with Travel Weekly that also included co-chair Mike Leavitt, a three-term governor of Utah and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain and Norwegian chairman Frank Del Rio.

“In some ways, you have exquisite control over the environment” on a cruise ship, Gottlieb said, which provides the opportunity to introduce enhanced levels of public health protocols that can substantially reduce risk.

“Nothing is risk-free,” he acknowledged. But a cruise line has tight control over the environment on a ship and also over “who gets into the protective bubble, and what you are doing in the bubble.”

The implementation of better public health controls around a cruise experience is “what we’re striving for,” Gottlieb continued. “We’re trying to come up with a set of measures that can be adaptable in a high prevalence environment as well as the future lower prevalence environment where [the virus] will continue to be a threat but, hopefully, a much lower threat.”

The panel has closely followed the European Union’s guidelines for the resumption of cruising, which includes recommendations for onboard separation by age group. NCLH CEO Frank Del Rio said he does not expect to adopt that policy for ships leaving from U.S. ports. 

“There will never be one absolute measure that will be the golden bullet,” Del Rio said. “It’s a matter of layers. There will be layers on embarkation, and testing, and levels of cleanliness, and technology that we will use. I’m hopeful that we will have multiple layers so that breaking up or dividing the populace of our guests into predetermined groups of age or nationality or anything else that is any way exclusionary won’t be necessary. I hope that is some extreme measure that hardly ever has to be put in use.” 

Del Rio and Fain said each of them knew the other was seeking to build a panel of experts -- Fain was already talking to Leavitt and Del Rio with Gottlieb -- when they decided to join forces.  

“We said, ‘This is a marriage made in heaven,’” Fain said. “Our objectives were the same. We both wanted a panel of the best of the best. We both wanted to do everything to make our ships as safe as humanly possible. We said, ‘Let’s do this together’ and so far, it’s been a terrific experience.” 

Addressing why Carnival Corp. is not part of the panel, Del Rio said that they didn’t think they’d achieve much by bringing on more experts and that the goal was never to be proprietary.

“We want to share it with the industry,” he said. “We have CLIA’s support. Our goal is that we have recommendations and the protocols that will be widely available to the entire industry, and hopefully widely adopted by the entire industry. As we’ve seen before, we all suffer when things occur onboard ships, and we don’t want that to occur again. We are confident the work being done will safeguard that.”

Gottlieb said that one of the reasons he and Leavitt are so enthusiastic about this project is that it can be implemented widely.

“We feel like the process and structure we’ve come up with could be a model for how other industries adjudicate risk,” he said. “Other industries face similar challenges. Obviously not with the same nuance and complexity of this industry, but we feel like it can be a best in class effort for how to adjudicate and contemplate those issues.”

The panel meets regularly and is broken up into working groups that focus in-depth on various parts of the cruise, including testing protocols, modifying the ship to improve health, safety and hygiene. and destination and route planning. 

The group looking at shore excursions, for example, is exploring what activities can be allowed and how to control passengers once they are off the ship in an environment where there might be risks, Gottlieb said. 

He added that the ultimate goal is to create an environment that mitigates risk in a world where Covid “will always be a threat that persists.”

“As part of the overall recommendations, there will be an overlay that deals with what the prevalence is,” he said. “What kind of environment are we in? The environment we’re in in the next six months is very different than in 24 months. What you do in the fall and winter in terms of risk reduction will look different than the summer of 2021, after you have a vaccine and higher levels of immunity. We’re addressing both.”

Leavitt said that the panel is not only studying the EU’s guidelines for the resumption of cruising, but looking at what other markets worldwide are doing.

“We believe the cruise lines will be operating in the future in an environment that will be fluid,” he said. “The virus will be alive even if we do have a vaccine. There will be destinations that have flare-ups. In the future. we may well see a Covid-19 alert in a particular part of the world. The cruise lines have got to be adaptable and flexible enough that they can begin to choose their destinations factoring in accurate data. And be able to pivot when required.” 


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