Recently, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) released new guidelines in the hopes of restarting operations on a wider basis. CLIA’s “Return to Sail Plan” included several “core elements” of health protocols; the apparent aim is to convince government regulators across the Americas to green light the resumption of cruising. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the CDC green-lighted the resumption of “test” cruises, without passengers, beginning November 1.) While several elements seem largely predictable, I suspect some may rankle cruises about the “new normal” of cruising.
The CLIA Return to Sail Plan At a Glance
As mentioned, the CLIA Return to Sail Plan contains six core elements, which are mandatory for all CLIA-member lines:
- Testing. 100% testing of passengers and crew for COVID-19 prior to embarkation.
- Mask-Wearing. Mandatory wearing of masks by all passengers and crew onboard and during excursions whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained
- Distancing. Physical distancing in terminals, onboard ships, on private islands and during shore excursions
- Ventilation. Air management and ventilation strategies to increase fresh air onboard and, where feasible, using enhanced filters and other technologies to mitigate risk
- Medical Capability: Risk based response plans tailored for each ship to manage medical needs, dedicated cabin capacity allocated for isolation and other operational measures, and advance arrangements with private providers for shoreside quarantine, medical facilities, and transportation.
- Shore Excursions: Only permit shore excursions according to the cruise operators’ prescribed protocols, with strict adherence required of all passengers and denial of re-boarding for any passengers that do not comply.
The six “core elements” derive from a six-page checklist. Some of these, such as guidelines on sanitation and hand hygiene, differ little from existing guidelines. After all, cruise ships have dealt with norovirus concerns for years; you’ve no doubt seen the (often humorous) reminders to use the hand sanitizer stations when going to the dining room. Others, such as mandatory masks, improved HVAC systems, and enhanced medical facilities aboard, seem entirely predictable. A few items, however, strike me as particularly interesting, or perhaps even problematic.
MSC Cruises Offers a Clue Into the New Normal of Cruising
Earlier this summer, MSC Cruises operated several Mediterranean cruises for residents of the Schengen zone. The MSC Grandiosa re-entered operations on August 18th, with departures from Rome at roughly 1/3 capacity (2,000 passengers on a 6,000 passenger ship). MSC’s health and safety FAQs give some ideas. But a recent report from a Cruise Critic contributor provides some good data points. The highlights:
- Buffets are open, but staff plate and serve all food and drink items
- More hand sanitizing stations throughout the ship
- Mandatory hand washing and temperature checks when entering dining areas
- Reduced capacity in common areas like the pool, theater, spa, casino, etc. Significantly reduced in some cases, such as only one person in the sauna at a time.
- Passengers receive some kind of tracking bracelet that allows for contactless entry into their stateroom, but also acts as a contact tracing tool in case of a shipboard outbreak
- Maximum 4 passengers per elevator at one time
- Masks mandatory in indoor public spaces like theaters; not required but apparently recommended on outdoor decks
Most of these items dovetail with CLIA’s Return to Sail Plan, though CLIA puts a little more color around, or differs on, some items.
No On-Site (Port) Testing Mandated
CLIA recommends requiring passengers receive a PCR test with negative result from 24 hours to 5 days before departure. Interestingly, CLIA decided not to follow what some European sailings, including those by MSC, have done. Namely, on-site rapid testing (one hour results based on the Cruise Critic review) at the port prior to departure. Given the spread of rapid testing options offered by airlines, I imagine the mass market lines plan to offer something at their larger ports (i.e. Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, Port Canaveral, etc.).
One question in my mind is, what happens in the event of a false positive? Though less common than false negatives, who bears responsibility for costs in rejoining the ship? Do passengers have any recourse at all for that matter? Or are they stuck with funny money and/or a do-over at a later date?
Amenity Capacity Restrictions Seem Like a Potential Problem Area
Anyone who’s been cruising knows the pool, spa, and casino tend to draw the largest crowds. So how do CLIA’s distancing guidelines work here? If MSC is representative of what others lines plan, you’ll find restrictions like one guest in the sauna at a time, 10 people in the pool at a time, etc. Even at 1/3 capacity, this will result in some significant access issues. If ships limit pool use to 10 at a time, for example, this likely requires appointments to use the facilities. Most likely this means strict time limits on usage, too. MSC promises extended operating hours for things like the spa. But this still seems like a pain point. And given how many arguments break out over reserved pool chairs, who plans to police a 30-minutes-in-the-pool rule?
The Elevator Situation = UGH
Let me start by saying, I hardly ever use the elevators on cruise ships. It’s almost always faster to hike up or down the stairs. (And let’s face it, I need the exercise to work off the second helping at the buffet.) But simply put, limiting elevator use to 4 at a time is a recipe for disaster. Cruises attract many passengers who lack the physical mobility to hike up or down several flights of stairs. Or you just don’t feel like hiking from Deck 3 to Deck 11 after spending all day out in port in the heat. Even at reduced capacity, how do you get 2,000 people to their rooms at embarkation? Or get them off at disembarkation? At a minimum, it seems cruisers should expect substantially longer embarkation/disembarkation processes.
Limitation on Shore Excursions Sure to be Unpopular
Buried at the bottom of the CLIA Return to Sail Plan is an initial restriction on shore excursions sure to lack popularity with guests. According to the plan, in the “initial return to sailing”, ships should limit excursions to “cruise-line sponsored or approved excursions”. While CLIA doesn’t define “approved excursions”, this most likely encompasses large-group excursions by large operators. Furthermore, the plan seems to suggest initial cruises won’t allow guests to debark at all unless on an approved excursion. And I’ll venture this won’t prove terribly popular with cruisers.
Over the years, I’ve tried both cruise-line sponsored and private excursions. See my review of Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas for examples of both. Ship-operated excursions are the “easy button” option; you can use cruise line funny money towards costs, and the ship takes responsibility for delays if you run late. I typically end up with a good amount of scrip through online promotions, thus I can usually get a “free” excursion or two. Also, the easy button nature of the tours carries some appeal when traveling with a young child.
There are some big drawbacks, though. Higher cost is one, but more than that, these are usually large-group tours geared to the least common denominator. You end up in groups of 40-60, with the inevitable visit to a tourist trap shopping center and a not really local flavor buffet lunch. And if you want something in-depth or a little more physically challenging, no dice. Getting stuck on one of those tours, with no option to even walk around the port on your own? Seems kinda bleh to me. Granted, for avid cruisers, I guess access to any cruise beats none at all…
Most of All, What Happens in Case of an Outbreak?
CLIA’s Return to Sail Plan includes requirements for ships to reserve staterooms for use as quarantine areas. That, combined with the contact tracing tool, should help manage outbreaks on board. Nevertheless, the question remains – what happens if an outbreak occurs? Reportedly, the Diamond Princess outbreak in February began with a single infected passenger; the confined spaces on a ship, even at reduced capacity, allow any kind of viral infection to spread quickly. And even with a mitigation/containment plan, what happens to uninfected passengers on the ship?
Diamond Princess passengers spent 14 days onboard confined to their staterooms; American passengers spent a further 14 days in isolation upon returning. Personally, my largest concern with cruise travel is getting stuck in quarantine (either confined to a stateroom or in a facility upon returning) if an outbreak occurs during the cruise. Widespread testing mitigates the risk, but still, it’s there, even if only one person brings it aboard.
It sure looks like the CLIA Return to Sail Plan underpins the CDC’s recent indication of a gradual return to cruising with passengers from US ports. On the one hand, it’ll be exciting to have cruise options – any cruise options – from US ports again. On the other, if this really represents the “new normal” of cruising for the forseeable future, the limitations sound like a pain. And I’m still not totally comfortable with what happens if an outbreak occurs on board. I’ll let others be the guinea pigs and re-evaluate later in 2021.
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