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(3:35 p.m. EDT) -- The European Union has released guidelines for what cruise lines need to do to resume service in their member countries – and while some protocols will be easy for the companies to follow, others could place a heavy burden on the industry.
The Healthy Gateways report, released on June 30, offers a glimpse of what cruising will look like in the COVID-19 era.
While it is important to know that these are guidelines and not requirements, it's possible that this document could be adopted, in whole or in part, by other government organizations around the world, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has yet to issue any sort of formal guidance on the resumption of cruises, even as the industry heads into its fourth month of total shutdown.
Some changes, like social distancing and recommended mask wearing, shouldn't come as a surprise. And some of these protocols -- like visible hand washing stations and regular cleaning of public areas -- were already in place on cruise ships prior to the pandemic.
Others -- like the recommended elimination of indoor swimming pools and separate activities for cruisers depending on age -- have the potential to radically change the cruise experience.
A rundown of what cruisers can possibly expect in the not-so-distant future:
One of the biggest surprises is the Healthy Gateways' recommendations on pools. The guidelines suggest eliminating the use of indoor swimming pools, which would include hydrotherapy pools in spa areas -- a significant revenue generator on many lines. The guidelines would also cover pools like those aboard Holland America Line ships that are covered by a retractable magrodome roof.
In addition, the number of bathers in each pool would be limited, and the report recommends that only members of the same household use the onboard hot tubs -- something that would no doubt cause a great deal of issues on the larger ships where pool decks are one of the primary attractions.
Deck chair availability would also be curtailed, with 1.5 metres (5 feet) required between each set of chairs or umbrella.
The EU Healthy Gateways commission recommends that passengers 65 or over, or those with a history of underlying medical conditions (chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases and immunocompromised individuals), should be advised to visit a doctor prior to travel to assess their overall health. No doctor's note, however, will be required to board.
One recommendation that's sure to be problematic: the indication that passengers may be separated by age group for activities onboard.
Keep in mind that these are recommendations and not requirements -- yet. The report notes these requirements should be in place for "as long as the pandemic continues."
The report also recommends that embarkation be done digitally wherever possible to avoid crowding at terminals. Smaller groups, with designated boarding windows, will likely become the new norm.
It may come as no surprise that the EU is recommending that those with active COVID-like symptoms should not be permitted onboard.
"Any person experiencing symptoms compatible with COVID-19, or if identified, anyone who has been in contact during the last 14 days with a confirmed case of COVID-19, or anyone who is tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 by RT-PCR would not be accepted on board cruise ships," the report says.
While cruise lines have been actively asking passengers about their health for decades with their standard questionnaires, the penalty of answering honestly is a steep one for most. Under traditional cancellation policies, positive answers on health questionnaires are well known to result in denial of boarding with no reimbursement.
In order to get passengers to answer honestly to these health questionnaires and protocols, there has to be a risk-free environment where passengers can cancel their cruise and keep monies paid for a future voyage.
"Cruise lines should develop an exclusion policy with regard to COVID-19 and inform the travelling public about the policy through their travel agents, travel companies, cruise line operators and other businesses operating in the tourism sector," states the report. "Harmonisation of this policy in the cruise industry, or consistent wording would facilitate acceptance and understanding by the public."
This requirement also raises questions about travel insurance coverage, and who would be on the hook for return flights, hotel stays or other necessities resulting in denial-of-boarding.
Under the EU guidance, cruise lines would have to reduce the overall capacity for passengers and crew onboard to ensure that physical distancing of 1.5 metres (5 feet) can be maintained at all times.
While the report doesn't directly specify what percentage cruise lines should reduce their occupancy, it does mention that operators will be required to provide separate accommodations for five percent of all passengers and five percent of all crew onboard in the event they need to be isolated due to COVID-19 symptoms and cannot be disembarked until the conclusion of the voyage.
On a ship carrying 3,000 passengers at double-occupancy, five percent works out to about 150 passengers. Provided those passengers would need single-occupancy cabins, that works out to 150 cabins that would need to be vacant, at a minimum, per sailing -- though it is likely cruise lines will voluntarily limit capacity well beyond standard double occupancy numbers.
The guidance from the Healthy Gateways group recommends ships sail shorter itineraries of three to seven days in length, and limit port calls to reduce interactions with shoreside staff. For lovers of sea days, it could be a pleasant change of pace from the more port-intensive itineraries of late. For those who relish port stops, this ruling could prove to be quite limiting.
More controversially, the report recommends limiting passenger interaction to "cohort groups". Much like an expedition cruise where passengers are assigned a zodiac group for touring and disembarking the vessel, these cohort groups could be provided with set times for dining, onboard activities and moving on and off the ship.
The report does note that if this is not possible onboard, cohort groups should be continued for shore tours in order to streamline the process and prevent further unnecessary mingling of passengers.
Interaction between passengers and crew is to be kept to a minimum. It may be possible to order drinks off apps or manage onboard accounts digitally instead of seeing someone in person at the Reception Desk.
The report recommends that crew and passengers use masks at all times when physical distancing isn't possible. This would include embarkation and disembarkation; when inside shipboard elevators and passenger cabin corridors; while visiting the medical facility, or in the event it is necessary to take to the lifeboats. The report also suggests that masks should be worn on all bus-driven tours.
Communication on how to use masks and properly sanitize hands should be provided throughout the vessel, including on shipboard TV's, websites, electronic signage, audio recordings, and in embarkation terminals.
Much like hotels and resorts are beginning to do, the report recommends removing nonessential items from cabins that cannot be sanitized easily between cruises. This includes books and magazines, menus, coffee and tea facilities, and all mini-bar products initially from the room. These items would be available upon request.
The report also recommends that television remote controls should be covered in a disposable cover to facilitate disinfection.
Also on the recommendation list: an end to twice-daily cabin service in favor of changing them out as requested by passengers.
While the buffet might not be going anywhere, the days of passengers queueing up to serve themselves could be going away,.
"It is recommended that self-service food operations are avoided, and if this is not feasible, these facilities can operate only if additional specific hygiene management precautions are implemented," reads the report.
"It is preferable that food is delivered by crew to passengers in closed packages or wrapped when it is delivered."
Disposable salt, pepper and condiment packages should be used unless containers can be disinfected between use. Plates, trays, napkins, cutlery, glasses and the like should be handed to crew by passengers for disposal; something that already occurs onboard cruise ships.
Onboard public areas, including kids clubs, casinos, bars, lounges and theatres may have their overall occupancy limited. While the report does not cite a specific cap, it notes that capacity should be limited to the amount of passengers that the room can comfortably seat while maintaining 1.5 metres, or 5 feet, between passengers.
Kids Clubs are encouraged to operate activities outdoors as much as possible. If this is not practical, capacity must be reduced in these programs as well.
Fitness Centers should keep a record of everyone using the facilities, and machines and equipment should be wiped down and disinfected after each use.
Protocols should be established to bring as much fresh air as possible into the shipboard ventilation systems, states the report. In the event this isn't possible, HEPA air filtration or Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI).should be utilized. Ventilation in all public areas of the ship should run continuously.
Finally, the report recommends routine temperature checks for both passengers and crew, and monitoring of symptoms. Cruise lines should consider testing all new passengers but the report notes that testing "should not give a false sense of security" due to the limitations of testing some passengers who may be asymptomatic or for whom the disease has failed to present visible symptoms.
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) issued a statement on the matter, saying it welcomed the new guidelines developed by the European Union.
"The primary concern of CLIA and its member lines is the health and safety of its passengers and crew. This guidance from the public health authorities in Europe provides a useful resource for cruise lines as they prepare to resume operations," said CLIA Europe Secretary-General Tom Boardley in a statement.
Cruise Critic will be delving into these issues in more depth over the coming weeks