The latest Covid-19 cruise scare was on the Quantum of the Seas out of Singapore and like a few before it, it turned out to be nothing but a scare. But nevertheless, it almost became another Covid-cruise PR nightmare.
There have been serious Covid-19 outbreaks on cruise ships. The first, and most famous, on the Diamond Princess, before anyone knew what Covid-19 was all about, resulted in passenger deaths. The outbreak on the Hurtigruten ship over the summer was mishandled and at least 70 passengers and crew were infected. A recent one, on SeaDream's first Caribbean sailing, infected seven of 53 passengers and two crewmembers.
But what people seem to forget, or don't quite understand, is that the cruise lines that have relaunched service expect to see Covid cases on their ships, and they have set up plans and processes to handle the cases.
I was surprised by how many people though that one case on the Quantum would doom its Singapore operations. Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain has been very clear that while cruise operators will try their hardest to keep Covid from coming onboard, they know that given its prevalence, what's more important is how the case is handled when the virus is able infiltrate.
"We've been explicit about this," Fain said last month during the Phocuswright Conference 2020. "You can't eliminate Covid-19 in society, and you can't totally eliminate it on a cruise ship. The objective wasn't to eliminate it; it was to make the cruise ship safer than you are in your hometown, and if there is a case it remains a case rather than an outbreak."
In Europe, the company has successfully managed to isolate and contain the small number of cases that have been found on their ships, preventing them from becoming outbreaks and enabling the cruises to continue.
"We've had tens of thousands of guests on our ships and other ships in Europe, and yes there have been cases, but they have been individual cases or family groups, and they then are isolated," he said about cruises on Royal's two jointly owned German brands, Hapag-Lloyd and Tui Cruises, as well as other lines operating in Europe.
Handling cases on ships is a focus of the CDC, its counterparts worldwide and the Healthy Sail Panel of experts assembled by Royal and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings because it is clear that it will be impossible to prevent Covid from coming onboard.
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, told Travel Weekly as far back as August, "the planning can't just be about testing people who get on, because we know there is no test that will be 100% certain I have never heard anybody say that once travel resumes, there won't be any cases."
That is why cruise lines, including Royal, have invested as much as they have in contact tracing technology on their ships. Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, said that the MSC for Me wristbands, which provide contact and proximity tracing, have helped enable the MSC Grandiosa to operate in Europe as smoothly as it has.
"The technology of the wristbands has proved to be very successful," he said during the Travel Weekly's CruiseWorld last month. "This has been the key to isolate only a few people and not adding the need to have many people involved in a case."
And when what was thought to be a positive case surfaced on the Quantum, Royal said that its system did its job there, too.
"Under the guidance of the Singapore government, we have created a thorough set of protocols designed to mitigate risk, including PCR and antigen testing of all guests and crew before boarding," the line said. "Being able to identify this single case and act on it immediately demonstrates the system is working as it is designed to."