It's been more than six months since the U.S. has seen any cruise ship action (though it's not for lack of want). When concerns about whether cruise ships could cause an increased spread of COVID-19 caused the CDC to issue a No Sail Order on March 14, 2020, it was initially only scheduled to last 30 days. Yet, here we are, two extensions and nearly 200 days later, and U.S. cruises are still suspended—though all of that may be about to change, and soon.
Back in early August, the Cruise Line Industry Association (CLIA), the world's largest cruise industry trade association whose members include the likes of Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, MSC, and Royal Caribbean, announced voluntary suspensions of operations from all its oceangoing members until Oct. 31. Also, the CDC's current No Sail Order is set to expire in mere days, on Sept. 30—and this time around, many in the industry expect the expiration date to stick. Some are even speculating that cruises could come back to the U.S., albeit in a minimal capacity, as early as November.
Whether that's optimistic or not remains to be seen, but the truth is that a lot has happened since CLIA and the CDC each announced their most recent sailing suspension extensions. For one, the CDC opened up its suggestion box and asked for input from the cruise industry, experts, and even the public on how to go about restarting cruising safely in the United States. There's also now a tried and true precedent for safe sailing thanks to a handful of successful—a.k.a. virus-free—voyages in the Mediterranean. It seems that these two things combined have empowered the industry and given them a roadmap to start addressing the health and safety issues around pandemic-era cruising—and, we've got to say, some of the results seem pretty promising.
In early July, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings teamed up with several cruise industry and health experts to form the Healthy Sail Panel. The idea was to create a science-backed plan the industry could follow to get back to cruising safely. According to Royal Caribbean, the panel, which is co-chaired by former Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Governor Michael Leavitt, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, submitted a 65-page report to the CDC on Monday, Sept. 21, the agency's stated deadline for outside input.
In the report, the Healthy Sail Panel includes "74 detailed best practices to protect the public health and safety of guests, crew, and the communities where cruise ships call." The guidelines focus on five major areas: testing, screening, and exposure reduction; sanitation and ventilation; response and contingency planning and execution; destination and excursion planning; and mitigating risks for crew members.
That same day, CLIA announced that all of its cruise line members would be required to adopt a new set of expert-driven core protocols that follow guidelines from numerous health and safety experts, including recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel. Some of the more notable protocols announced include COVID-19 testing for passengers and crew, social distancing in public spaces, mandatory mask-wearing when social distancing is not possible, enhanced onboard air filtration, and increased ventilation, tightly-controlled and managed shore excursions, and onboard quarantine cabins.
"The core elements mirror the successful resumption of cruising in other parts of the world and include 100 percent testing of passengers and crew before boarding—a travel industry first," the association said in a statement. The association also believes that "with support and approval of regulators and destinations, cruises could feasibly begin during the remainder of 2020."
Even government officials are weighing in with solutions. This month, Florida Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio introduced the Set Sail Safely Act on Sept. 16. "Florida is a tourism state with thousands of jobs relying on the success of our ports, cruise lines, and maritime industries," Senator Scott said. "As we work to solve the coronavirus and safely reopen our economy, this legislation will support the development of guidelines needed to ensure the safe resumption of our cruise lines and port operations."
According to information on both senators' official websites, the Set Sail Safely Act seeks to establish a new Maritime Task Force to work with private sector stakeholders to address and solve the health, safety, security, and logistical challenges facing the cruise and maritime industry.
However, little has been divulged about the legislation beyond this, except that the Maritime Task Force would be led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and include representatives from other federal agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, The U.S. Coast Guard, Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, Department of State, and the Federal Maritime Commission. Examples of private stakeholders range from cruise line representatives and commercial fishermen to U.S. ports, small businesses, and health professionals.
"The cruise industry is an important economic contributor in the United States, supporting nearly half-a-million U.S. jobs, and over 150,000 in Florida alone," said Adam Goldstein, CLIA's global chair. "The Senators' bill draws much-needed attention to the importance of strategic dialogue between appropriate federal agencies and a broad group of public and private sector stakeholders to safely advance a resumption of cruising in the U.S. that mirrors the gradual and successful restart of cruise operations in Europe."
Goldstein is referring to the so-far successful MSC and Costa Cruises that have managed to sail multiple Mediterranean voyages without any recorded onboard COVID-19 transmission. While MSC Grandiosa's first sailing back didn't exactly go off without a hitch—remember, the family that got kicked off the cruise ship for breaking protocol?—the ship has managed to complete five roundtrip sailings without a recorded COVID-19 transmission. Carnival Corporation's Costa Cruises has also had successful restarts on Mediterranean sailings on the Costa Deliziosa and flagship Costa Diadema.
Many of the newly introduced and announced protocols are leaning on the precedent set by the small but growing number of recent cruises that have completed virus-free voyages in the Mediterranean. This feat is widely attributed to their strict and stringent health and safety rules and protocols required both onboard and in port. All three ships have amped up cleaning and sanitization measures, perform recurrent health checks for both passengers and staff, require face coverings and social distancing, operate at limited capacity, and have tightly-controlled, ship-sanctioned excursions.
Only time will tell if the CDC finds itself onboard with any of the recommendations or suggestions. However, with the No Sail Order set to expire on Wednesday and still no word from the public agency about an extension, as the industry waits with bated breath, it could very well mean that no news is finally good for the cruise industry.
Royal Caribbean. "Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel." Sept. 21, 2020