As the cruise lines resume service worldwide, passengers will have to get up to speed on the virtual tsunami of new health protocols that have been put in place to protect people from COVID-19.
So far, the lines have instituted, or will at the request of government health organizations, changes in everything, from multiple pre-boarding COVID tests, to mandatory mask wearing to social distancing to the end of the buffet as we knew it.
Many of these changes are meant to be interim steps, however, which would be phased out once the world gets a solid vaccine and the spectre of COVID-19 fades into the distance. What do we think will stay and what will go? We break it down for you.
Here to Stay
1. The Virtual Muster
The end of the muster drill as we know it is nigh -- Royal Caribbean has even named it -- Muster 2.0 or eMuster. And while there may be a few of you die hards who love traipsing down the stairs to your designated muster station, sitting (if you are lucky) or standing waiting patiently for the run-through while all your fellow passengers talk/drink/take selfies -- we will not miss the experience.
The Royal Caribbean Group (and no doubt other lines will follow) has designed a system to replace passengers gathering in large groups at different points around the ship with a process that cruisers can complete on their own time before the ship sails.
Known as eMuster, the process starts with passengers reviewing safety information either on their own mobile devices or on their in-stateroom interactive TVs. These electronic briefings include what to expect during and emergency and where to go, as well as the proper way to use life jackets.
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People then visit their assigned assembly stations, where crew members verify that all steps have been completed and scan the passengers' keycard to complete the process.
We say: This can't come soon enough.
Technology is the glue that binds many of the changes together, particularly functionality on your smart phone.
For people who like to unwind and leave their smart phone at home, this will be unwelcome news. But in general, we think that passengers will enjoy the convenience that the move brings.
One big change that will stick with us is using your phone as key card. This is already in use on Celebrity Cruises, where your phone can open your cabin door, control the lighting and A/C, your blinds (in an Infinite Veranda cabin).
Another is using your phone to house your boarding pass, which many lines already encourage.
Carnival's HUB, Royal Caribbean's Royal app, Viking's Viking Voyager and MSC Cruises' MSC for Me all reduce the need for passengers to touch documentation, as well as take other actions such as making purchases, booking dinner and spa treatments and -- with the use of an app -- track your kids via RFID bracelets (already in use on MSC Cruises' ships).
An interesting additional feature of RFID wristbands is that they can be adapted for use as a track and trace device -- something that MSC has already done and something that Royal Caribbean has patented -- expect to be wearing a "Tracelet" on your next Royal cruise.
The use of QR codes to bring up menus (which also reduces waste) will likely be here to stay.
3. Enhanced Cleaning
The last thing the cruise industry is a COVID-19 outbreak once sailing resumes, so there is no doubt that enhanced cleaning is here to stay and it is likely to be driven by new high tech measures. Besides combating COVID-19, enhanced cleaning may also drive down spread of other illnesses, such as norovirus.
A number of smaller lines that have restarted, including Variety Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club, are using UVC light -- the type used in hospitals to create complete sterile environments -- to destroy all germs on surfaces and in the air.
Variety also uses a cleaning system called "Pure Space" more typically used in hospitals. A water-based machine uses filters to draw in air-based bacteria and germs, sterilising the cabin in three minutes.
We are also likely to see more deep cleaning, more hand gel stations and wash stations -- and crew empowered to tell people to wash their hands before meals.
Royal Caribbean has gone into a lot of detail of what it plans for its first sailing -- out of Singapore on December 1, which includes the sue of hospital grade cleaning products and cabin cleanings by attendants will only be done when guests are out, although the line still promises "towel animal surprises."
4. Enhanced Ventilation Systems
Airborne transmission of the virus is a widely-accepted view, and as a result cruise lines are scrambling to install new and improved ventilation systems across their fleets.
A number of lines have already committed to this including Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean (which will debut it onboard Quantum of the Seas) and Windstar Cruises; it's likely other lines will follow suit.
Norwegian's commitment includes the installation of new medical-grade H13 HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters across its fleet. These filters are estimated to remove 99.95 percent of all airborne pathogens that are 0.1 microns or larger. The COVID-19 pathogen is 25 percent larger than this standard, coming in at 0.125 microns. For comparison, a single human hair is 75 microns -- 75,000 percent larger.
5. Staggered Arrival Times
While the lines have given cruise passengers different arrival times before, often designated by stateroom category or loyalty level, many people ignored it and came early anyway.
We predict that designated arrival times will be strictly enforced, going forward.
The move is meant to manage crowds in parking lots, drop-off areas and terminals to allow for social distancing and testing in the short term. Post-COVID, staggered arrivals will make it much easier for lines to process passengers, avoid bottlenecks and people jams, as well as onboard crowding in the restaurants and at the elevators.
It is also likely to help with timings for people to enter their cabins -- stewards will be able to plan for when passengers are likely to board, and also conduct the enhanced cleaning that will become the norm going forward.
6. A Served Buffet
Don't worry, the buffet will remain. We predict the key difference will be a compromise where you go to the serving stations and are served, rather than table service. This was already in practice pre-COVID on Holland America Line's newer ships, where you point to your food and are served, rather than help yourself.
The days of some passengers picking up a piece of bread/pizza/fruit inspecting it and returning it to the tray are well and truly gone -- and we definitely welcome that.
Cruise lines are also likely to make more wrapped "grab-and-go" items available at the buffet and cafes.
7. The Paper Daily Planner
Many readers will bemoan the end of the Daily Planner in paper form, while others will welcome the end of seven nights of planners strewn around their cabins. What's abundantly clear is that it's a lot easier and cheaper for the lines to make the planner available on your in-cabin TV or via an app than print out 5,000 a day.
Royal Caribbean has already confirmed that the Daily Planner has gone digital and will be accessed through your phone.
We are also likely to say goodbye to those paper invitations to join the Captain for dinner and say hello to push notifications on our apps.
8. Enhanced Health & Safety Screenings
OK hands up – who has rushed through the pre-board health questionnaire without really reading it? Let's just say that pre-board screenings may well have to be backed up by doctor's notes and clean bills of health -- at least something a bit more robust than a tick in a box. So we may see temperature tests as standard, but we are unlikely to see COVID tests remain permanently (see below).
What Will Be Temporary
1. Mask Wearing
Once a vaccine becomes widespread and infection rates fall, then both lines and passengers will no longer feel the need to wear masks. We don't see the routine practice of mask wearing, which is common in Asian countries, extending to the U.S. or Europe after the pandemic (although we do think that people will be more cognizant of coughs and sneezes, perhaps donning a mask to protect others when they are sick).
2. Social Distancing
It's the same story for social distancing. Although there will be some people who still feel wary about giving a stranger a bear hug, those signs and cordoned-off seats and capacity restrictions will go, once the virus is under control.
3. Sailing at Lower Capacity
The cruise lines will gradually ramp up capacity as we return to normal, so make the most of those early sailings when you don't have to wait in line to get into the main dining room/the theater or even to board.
Too Soon to Tell
The science says that once we have a successful vaccine which is in widespread use, we will reach herd immunity and thus no longer need to worry about being infected. We look forward to this day, but at this stage it's too soon to call it. Who knows? Maybe we will need to present proof of having taken a vaccine and proved negative for many more years to come?