Travelers with cruises booked in 2020 and into the next few years are anxiously awaiting news from the lines about what changes will be made and how the experience might change.
Yet with the exception of a few lines, new health and safety protocols have not been released. And as much as we'd like to know, cruise industry leaders say it probably won't happen for another six weeks or so (Here's a look at what has been released so far; Cruise Critic will add to this story as information comes in).
There's a reason for that, explains Brian Salerno, senior vice president for maritime policy at the Cruise Line Industry Association, the largest cruise industry trade association and an advocacy group that routinely works with governments on policy and regulation.
The cruise lines, which are all under a "no sail" rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are currently operating under requirements that the government agency placed upon them in mid-April. The 100-day ban extends to July 24.
When cruising is allowed to resume, the CDC will likely place new requirements on the cruise lines for health and safety compliance, but the lines haven't received those yet, Salerno said.
"They have not given us any criteria for resumption yet," he said in an exclusive interview with Cruise Critic. "I would anticipate that they will, but the no-sail order continues until late July. So, we still have some time before we reach that deadline.
"A lot can happen between now and then. One of the things that we're all contending with is the more that's learned about the virus, the more public health guidelines change. And that happens on a fairly frequent basis."
A spokesperson for the CDC said, "The CDC is closely monitoring the situation on cruise ships while we review the cruise lines’ plans to prevent, detect, contain, and respond to COVID-19 during the No Sail period. At this point in time, we do not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing. We will continue to work with cruise lines to ensure all necessary public health procedures are in place when cruise lines do begin regular sailing."
Cruise Line Executives Echo CLIA's Message.
In interviews with other cruise line honchos, Cruise Critic is hearing the same message.
Last week, Arnold Donald, the president and CEO of Carnival Corp., said that while his company was exploring many different operational policies for its nine brands, it wasn't ready to announce concrete changes yet.
"I don't know when we'll sail again," he said. "I think there's going to be so much more alignment around what makes sense from a public health standpoint regarding this virus in the coming weeks than there has been. … The more clarity there is, the easier it's going to be to organize around it."
Ken Muskat, executive vice president and chief operating officer of MSC Cruises, echoed the same uncertainty when speaking to Cruise Critic. "We can't comment on what the future looks like," he said. "We really don't know right now."
In a video message on May 26, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard Fain said he has received many messages from people -- travel agents and passengers -- asking why the cruise industry isn't releasing information on the protocols that they are working on.
"Why aren't we touting our procedures now? The reason is simple," he said. "Unlike (other businesses), we aren't operating today and therefore we have the luxury of time to develop and to refine our ideas. We have the time to put together a blue-ribbon group of experts to advise us and to help us chart the absolutely best course. … We will soon be talking more about our way forward, and when we do, I believe -- in fact, I'm confident -- that you will say that we have used our time wisely."
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Is The First With Changes.
On Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings became the first mainstream cruise line to lead the way, by releasing a six-point program designed to cover every aspect of the cruise experience, from check-inand embarkation to onboard procedures and services.
The guidelines, which apply to the three brands under the company -- Norwegian Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas -- call for a pre-embarkation health screening and touchless temperature checks at various times, including prior to embarkation and disembarkation; upon returning to the ship at any port of call; prior to activities in public venues; and prior to meals in all dining venues.
The company also plans to reduce capacity across its fleet to allow for fewer overall passengers, and limiting capacity in all public areas throughout the voyage.Embarkations will be staggered and advanced online check-in procedures will be implemented to ensure crowding at the terminal doesn't become an issue.
All staterooms, suites and public areas will be disinfected at an increased frequency with Electrostatic Spray technology. Fogging will use hypochlorous acid (HOCl), a non-toxic, powerful oxidant that effectively kills bacteria, spores, and viruses. It is natural and safe to use in open areas since it is comprised of natural elements such as water and salt, and electric charge.
Buffets and beverage service stations will no longer be self-serve, and will now offer staff available to serve passengers. Passengers will be encouraged to wash hands frequently throughout the day. Hand sanitizer will be prominently placed throughout the ship.
The company will also improve air ventilation on its ships, by using H13 HEPA medical-grade air filters throughout each vessel. These are designed to remove 99.95% of airborne pathogens.
The medical systems onboard will also be beefed up, with additional onsite COVID-19 tests; an increased inventory of vaccinations and medications, including those eventually approved to treat COVID-19. A new onboard position, called the Public Health Officer, will oversee sanitization and outbreak prevention, and will be in charge of the overall day-to-day cleanliness of the vessel in compliance with the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program.
In a letter to travel agents, Norwegian Cruise Line President Harry Sommer said that the changes came after spending several months workign with heath, safety and medicatl experts: "We continue to work closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and are developing even more stringent protocols to meet and exceed their standards once those have been finalized."
Europe, Small Ships and Asia Offer Clues.
As cruisers on other major ocaen lines wait to hear procedures for their lines, more clues on what cruisers might expect come from Europe, where river cruises for international passengers are resuming this week, as well as small lines in the U.S. that are planning to resume cruises in late June and July.
Scylla AG, which operates river cruise ships for several European lines (as well as Tauck), has a detailed list of changes their making because of COVID-19 pandemic. They range from the use of masks in public areas to mandatory temperature and health checks by an onboard doctor. Cabins must be vacated twice a day for sanitizing, and parts of the ship will have one-way directional routing. In addition, elevators and public toilets will no longer be used, and salon and massage services won't be available.
In the U.S., American Cruise Lines is voluntarily reducing the number of people on its ships, as well as allowing more time between cruises for sanitation. Dining changes have been made, with tables capped at a maximum of four and only being used once per night. Public washrooms will be closed, and people who have traveled internationally within 14 days will be denied boarding. (The size of ACL's ships -- all under 250 combined passengers and crew -- means they are not subject to CDC requirements under the current ban.)
Expect partnerships with major health organizations, too, such as the one that American Queen Steamboat Company has developed with Ochsner Health of Louisiana. Hotels are making similar tie-ups, to reassure customers that their properties are appropriately sanitized; the Four Seasons luxury brand, for example, has partnered with Johns Hopkins to guide its protocols.
Other areas to watch include Norway, where small-ship lines including Hurtigruten and SeaDream have been cleared for cruises with passengers from those countries, as well as Asia, where Genting Cruise Lines has drawn up a more comprehensive list of health and safety changes it will make on its China-based ships.
Salerno expects cruising will return to other areas of the world before the U.S.: "It's not too much of a stretch to say that certain areas of Europe may also open up to ocean cruise sooner than maybe in the U.S. or Australia. … Asia is a possibility as well. So, it's possible that the cruising could resume there sooner than other places as well."
It's Not Business As Usual.
Although the cruise lines are mostly keeping mum on potential changes, everyone is working diligently behind the scenes so they can be as prepared as possible when the CDC does act, Salerno said.
"What's happening now is the cruise lines are making assumptions as to what might be needed for resumption -- things that feel like they need to do anyway. So, anticipating the kinds of requirements that may come from CDC … a lot of thought (is) going into how will cruising be different?
"I don't think anybody assumes that it will just go back to business as usual."
Having better screening and medical care onboard is likely going to be a given, Salerno said, as well as plans on how to evacuate passengers or crew who do get sick. "There will need to be enhanced measures, whether it's screening, maybe a higher level of medical care than what's already available.
"We already have hospitals and medical staff. That probably needs to be elevated, to some extent. We do know that CDC and the government overall is concerned about burdens that could be placed on public health facilities, and including medical evacuation. So that's been an expectation."
Testing, too, is likely to be part of the process, although no one has outright said how much and when. The small expedition cruise line UnCruise Adventures, whose ships lie outside the CDC guidelines because they carry fewer than 250 passengers and crew, is thinking about having passengers test for COVID-19 in Seattle, before they fly up to Alaska and get on their cruise, as well as daily temperature checks.
"Our belief is that by testing people, that allows for somewhat-normal operations to take place," UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard said. "We're going to do our best to keep people in a safe bubble until they are ready to go home."
Ports, too, are eyeing whether they will be testing passengers as they get on and off ships. In an interview with Cruise Critic in May, the Commissioner of Tourism for the Virgin Islands, Joseph Boschulte, said the islands were having ongoing discussions with the cruise lines on where the responsibility lies: "What do we do after they come back from touring or on the beach -- do we test them before they go back onboard or does the ship?
"Until we get a vaccine, I think we are going to have to err on the side of most caution."
Expect Quick Turnaround and More Cooperation.
The advance prep that's going on behind the scenes is necessary, as the cruise lines might not have a lot of time to submit plans once the CDC asks; in mid-March when the agency first levied the suspension on cruise ships returning to U.S. ports, the cruise lines only had seven days to turn in plans for approval.
"My guess is that we'd see something fairly similar for resumption," Salerno said. "Seven days was a very challenging timeframe. No question about that. But the cruise lines did it. From everything I've seen, they did a pretty thorough job."
On the upside, Salerno said that while the lines remain competitive with each other, there is also increased cooperation.
"I know the industry really wants to get going again," he said. "But they're equally adamant that they don't want to start before it's time to start. So they put people first. You don't want to put people at risk. So it's going to have to be a very carefully considered approach to getting people back on ships and to where they can enjoy themselves on a cruise.
"Overall the things that people are attracted to with cruising will still be there. It'll just be with the addition of some additional precautions."
Cruise Critic will continue to keep readers updated as soon as cruise lines release health and safety protocols; we're as eager to know the future of cruising as you are.