Travel How Cruise Lines Have Adapted to Sailing During Coronavirus
Are Cruises to Nowhere the Way to Resume Sailing?
Cruises with no ports are banned, but private islands and destinations could be key to resume sailingJust a few days ago, we asked on Facebook, “Should cruise lines be allowed to sail from U.S.
In August, MSC Cruises became the first major line to resume sailing since theswept the globe in March. Watched closely as a crucial industry test, its flagship MSC Grandiosa has since completed five back-to-back Mediterranean voyages without a single coronavirus case detected onboard. Same goes for Italy-based Costa Cruises, which joined MSC in the Mediterranean earlier this month as the to restart its cruise season, on its Costa Deliziosa and Costa Diadema ships.
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The group counts major lines as members, including Carnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean International. “This is a difficult decision as we recognize the crushing impact that this pandemic has had on our community and every other industry,” the group said in a statement.
The success so far has been credited to the companies' steadfast commitment to a slate of stringent new health and safety protocols, including sweeping new measures meant to prevent the virus from making its way on board. Most notably, each line now requires mandatory rapid result COVID-19 swab tests for all passengers at embarkation, and guests are prohibited from touring port stops on their own along the way. Instead they can join guided, cruise line–run shore excursions that are designed to minimize risk of exposure off the ship.
It was a tougher restart earlier in the summer, when several small-ship cruise lines faced coronavirus outbreaks, stretching from European to Alaskan to French Polynesian seas. As officials, cruise lines, and travelers become more informed, however, the industry has made gains in preventing onboard cases. Here's what's changed:
Viking Cruises Cancels All Sailings Until 2021
“As keen as we may be to get back to exploring, for now, international travel must wait,” the cruise line's chairman said in a statement.Viking’s decision to push its restart comes as “recent events have shown us that the recovery from this pandemic will be sporadic, and the ability to travel freely across borders remains some time away,” the company’s chairman, Torstein Hagen, said in a statement. The company first paused operations on March 11.
Response protocols look very different
“While we’re still in the early phases of cruising’s return, so far the response to the virus has been very different than it was prior to the industry’s pause—and that has everything to do with more being learned about the virus,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of.
Indeed, since March, cruise lines have advanced contingency plans and solidified partnerships with local authorities and public health officials. “The cruise industry has the benefit of a substantial body of detailed guidance from international, regional, and national health authorities, and medical experts on COVID-19-appropriate protocols, both on ships and in comparable landside settings, that did not exist previously,” says Bari Golin-Blaugrund, spokesperson for industry organization Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
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A pivot from Mediterranean escapes to domestic charters has things looking up for the Sailing Collective.It wasn't the first time the company had faced a disaster. "We've had a couple pretty catastrophic events in our career, natural disasters mainly, like the Zika outbreak in 2015 and Hurricane Irma and Maria, which devastated the Caribbean in 2017," Armstrong says. "But for the most part, we could move to our boats to a new location." Finding a solution amid a pandemic was something entirely different.
Because lines have worked out solid agreements with national and port authorities, when cases did occur in recent months, there were no repeat scenes of ships at sea being denied port anchorage indefinitely, as were commonplace at the pandemic’s onset. Instead, pre-set quarantine responses, including fast disembarkation, were deployed. What’s also apparent is that lines have better—with access to more immediate COVID-19 testing—as well as designated shipboard quarantine wards.
In French Polynesia in August, an asymptomatic passenger tested positive aboard French-ownedwhile sailing on the line’s first cruise with international guests. The company immediately suspended the sailing and enforced quarantine and testing for onboard guests and crew; the positive passenger and her traveling companion were sequestered to a designated cabin onboard before being disembarked to isolate in a hotel. All passengers were then debarked to enter a seven-day quarantine period and complete new testing while isolated in a hotel at the ship’s base in Papeete, Tahiti. Crew members, meanwhile, were quarantined on board for one week, and then retested. No new cases were reported, and the cruise line has since continued operations.
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“If you've traveled, you've been at an airportyou've been in a congregate setting, assume you are infected," says Dr. Fauci.The United States just has more coronavirus cases in a day since the pandemic began—with 126,742 new cases—leading experts to warn we're in for a dark and deadly winter. It was the fourth day in a week in which new cases topped 100K. One expert who warned this would happen—Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert—warned of long-lasting COVID symptoms in an interview Saturday with the American Medical Association (AMA).
Closer to home, U.S.-flagged small ship firm UnCruise Adventures attempted tofor the first time last month, when an asymptomatic passenger tested positive during the line’s first post-pandemic sailing. Passengers aboard the Wilderness Adventurer were quarantined first onboard (the positive passenger did so in a special quarantine-specific cabin) and then, within a day, at a hotel in Juneau, before being cleared with negative tests to return home—all in accordance with the company’s state of Alaska–approved COVID-19 contingency plan. Still, the line canceled the remainder of its sailing season.
Things for Norwegian line Hurtigruten did not go as smoothly: By late July, the line’swas in the throes of the worst industry incident this summer; 70 crew members and passengers ultimately tested positive for COVID-19. While the line worked closely with Norwegian authorities to quickly disembark and quarantine passengers in an area hotel and track down past passengers via contact tracing, the line admitted fault, citing deviations from established Norwegian coronavirus procedures like failing to quickly notify all early passengers of potential exposure and allowing some of them to disembark and start their travels home. Subsequently, Hurtigruten has opted to suspend cruising until 2021.
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A significant takeaway for the Paul Gauguin and UnCruise Adventures incidents was that there was no community spread. “What we have seen so far is that when procedures are in place, rigorously followed, acted upon swiftly, and there is absolute transparent and quick communication between authorities—they tend to work pretty well,” says Golin-Blaugrund of CLIA.
The prevention tactics that have worked
Apart from Hurtigruten, asymptomatic passengers made up the other reported cases this summer—evidence that the virus can easily slip through undetected. The availability of efficient and rapid testing at embarkation, as employed by MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, appears to be one workable solution, and one thatfor ships resuming sailing in the U.S.
“We know now more than ever that rapid—within two to four hours—testing is what is needed to bring the industry back,” says UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard.
For instance, when a guest on MSC Grandiosa’s second voyage tested positive with the rapid test at boarding, which was then confirmed by a secondary molecular swab test (standard protocol for both MSC and Costa), he, along with 14 other travelers who had been in a van with him traveling to Genoa, were denied passage. (In such instances, MSC Cruises’ mandated COVID-19 insurance policy kicks in to reimburse guests for any incurred travel expenses, and case-by-case arrangements are made for either quarantine or repatriation, in accordance with local guidelines.)
Keeping to a protected “pod” with the cruisers and cruise staff appears to be another effective strategy for minimizing exposure while getting off and back onto the ships. That policy must be enforced: In one instance, MSC Cruises prevented passengers from reboarding the ship when they broke off from their excursion in Naples, Italy.
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For the moment, members of CLIA havein U.S. waters through at least November 1—with several lines now canceling itineraries further on into 2021.
While cruising won’t fully resume in U.S. waters until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CLIA members, and would-be cruisers all agree that it’s safe, it does seem it's on the horizon. “The restart of MSC Grandiosa has also given some proof that cruise ships, with the new protocols in place, can be a protective healthy bubble,” says Ken Muskat, EVP and Chief Operating Officer of MSC Cruises USA.
As coronavirus mitigation strategies advance in the science and medical communities, cruise line protocols will continue to evolve. McDaniel credits the broader global industry’s slow-and-measured restart, bumpy as it has been, as a real chance for learning. “It’s given lines the ability to continue to create and adjust health and safety protocols—seeing what’s working well, and identifying areas where improvements can be made,” she says.
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