(1:45 p.m. EDT) -- Two of the world's largest cruise organizations, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. have announced a partnership to develop detailed health and safety protocols for the cruise industry, as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The two companies have created a "Healthy Sail Panel" headed up by Mike Leavitt, former Secretary of the U.S. Department Health and Human Services and former three-term governor of Utah; and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Healthy Sail Panel will develop protocols for the safe resumption of cruise operations and is expected to offer its initial recommendations by the end of August (both cruise corporations have suspended operations through mid-September). The panel includes input from experts in public health, infectious diseases, biosecurity, and hospitality and maritime operations.
"Norwegian and Royal Caribbean were both heading down a similar path, " Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain told Cruise Critic in an exclusive interview. "We both wanted to put together a leading panel of experts to help us find the safest and best way to come back into service."
"We have kindred spirits here," Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., told Cruise Critic. "It was good to see that Governor Leavitt and Dr. Gottlieb had worked jointly on various projects in the past, of public health concerns. And we thought that the two groups would generate a better output than if Richard went at it alone, and I went at it alone. We're glad that we got together. We're making great progress. And we're eager to find out the results when they are ready to announce them."
Norwegian and Royal Caribbean don't intend for these recommendations to be proprietary, however. Both lines are adamant that these health and safety protocols be available to other players in the industry, along with any group or industry that could benefit from adopting similar protocols.
"We don't want this to be proprietary to us," Del Rio said. "We want to have this be available to all cruise lines. We've seen how important it is for the industry to behave in a responsible way. We don't want any company to experience any kinds of issues once sailing resumes."
Asked why Carnival Corporation wasn't part of the new Healthy Sail Panel, Fain said Norwegian and Royal Caribbean had similar goals and had already consulted with many of the same experts. He reiterated that the panel's findings could be freely adopted by other cruise lines.
"We have 30 million fans that come onboard our vessels that love cruising," Del Rio said. "It's almost cult-like. Nothing is going to keep them away. What happens onboard ship is what happens across society -- people will learn to live with the virus onboard cruise ships as they do on land."
The group has been working together for the past month and is collectively examining four different aspects.
The first is conducting health screening to minimize exposure risks, "looking at the way different passengers have different risks, and being able to know what those risks are, have information about them and be able to help them make good decisions," Leavitt said.
The second is conducting research into operating environment and engineering controls to determine how passengers interact with the vessel and their surroundings and how to minimize those risks. "This would be, how does the actual ship itself and the passengers interact, and what are the things we can do to reduce exposures in that category?" Leavitt said.
Third, the lines want to focus on contingency planning -- what to do if someone falls ill. "We want to make certain that we have the type of medical facilities that are required, that we have the protocols in place to where those passengers are well cared for, and that other passengers are protected," Leavitt said.
And finally, itinerary planning, and how to design itineraries that can respond to unexpected port closures or a number of differing restrictions.
"It's clear that this virus will be with us for a while," Leavitt said. "There will be many cruise destinations that at times will have risk exposure levels that will make them unavailable to cruise. In the future, we may well see a COVID-19 warning where there's a flare-up of the disease. It will be a place that people don't want to visit for a period. Learning how to plan and develop the criteria for when and where to sail is important."
Different experts have been recruited to supplement the panel in all four areas, "public health leaders, scientists, engineers, who have been experienced and have a lot of judgment and a track record of being able to make good decisions," as well as people with subject matter expertise, Leavitt said.
"Clearly testing will be part of this, so we have testing experts. Sanitation protocols will need to be part of this, so we have sanitation protocol experts. It's very likely that airflow will have some involvement here. And so we have engineers that have deep experience," he said. "That'll give you a sense of how we're approaching it."
The panel has also told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of its intentions to develop increased health and safety protocols for the industry in response to the CDC's "No Sail" order, which was put in place in March and is due to expire later this month.
"We notified the CDC that we were doing this," Leavitt told Cruise Critic. "The panel has had interaction with them. We made it clear we wanted to be cooperative and work collaboratively and would be transparent with them. They received our notification very warmly."
The move by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. comes on the heels of new health and safety recommendations put forth by the European Union, and by Norwegian Cruise Line's own health and safety protocols that were released in June. Those, Del Rio told Cruise Critic, are still a part of the relaunch plan for the line.
"What Norwegian put out were things that were very obvious," Del Rio said."We are in a rush to get back to work. There are 130 million people a year who cruise who are being denied the pleasure of cruising. But we don't want to get back until we are confident we've done everything we can to reduce the risk of the virus affecting our guests, our crew, the communities we visit. We have every confidence that this panel is the right group to do just that."
"We are following very closely the work that's being done in the EU, work that's being done in Australia, work that's being done in other markets around the world," Leavitt said. "I know there will be differences, but I think having all of them available and transparent has been a very positive thing for our efforts."
Royal Caribbean's Fain -- who became Royal Caribbean's chairman and CEO in 1988 -- says change is inevitable as a result of COVID-19. The company is, however, committed to being mindful as to how that change impacts passengers and the overall cruise experience.
"The industry has not been static," Fain said."I don't think many of your readers have suggested that we would go back to the cruise we offered five or 10 years ago. Cruising today is better today than it was 15 or 20 years ago."
"The panel's job is to say, medically, how do we improve the health and safety. How do we implement that in a way that enhances the experience rather than detracts from it?"
Both Fain and Del Rio agreed that adaptability and innovation are two things the cruise industry excels at. Both expressed increasing confidence that the challenges presented by COVID-19 will provide the industry with more opportunities to fine-tune its operations going forward.
"One of the things I remember from the Galapagos: The animals that survived and thrived aren't the biggest or the strongest or the smartest," Fain said. "They're the ones that adapted. I think the same is true of the cruise industry."
The other members of the panel have impressive resumes. They include:
Helene Gayle MD, MPH, who is CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and past president and CEO of CARE. She spent 20 years with the CDC, working primarily on HIV/AIDS and also directed programs on global health issuese at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH, is currently EVP and chief patient officer for Merck. She's the former head of the CDC -- the first woman to chair the organization -- and has led more than 40 emergency responses against crises such as anthrax, SARS, bird flu, food-borne outbreaks and natural disasters.
Steven Hinrichs, MD, is professor and chair in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory and director of the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity. He has been responsible for the development of a statewide program for the rapid identification of biological agents of mass destruction.
Michael Osterholm, MD, PhD, is one of the nation’s foremost experts in public health, infectious disease and biosecurity. As the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, he is an international leader on the world’s preparedness for pandemics.
Stephen Ostroff, MD, brings years of experience in public health, having served at high-level positions at the FDA and CDC, where he focused on emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and coordination of complex outbreak response.. He was the acting commissioner of the FDA from 2015-2016, and before that served as the FDA’s chief scientist. Earlier work included deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC.
William Rutala, PhD, MS, MPH, is an expert in medically managing a variety of diseases and extensive experience studying epidemiology and virology, particularly managing outbreaks and emerging pathogens. In particular, his research concerns the prevention of healthcare-associated infections with a special focus on disinfection and sterilization of reusable medical and surgical devices.
Kate Walsh, PhD, is dean at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and E.M. Statler Professor. A professor of management, she is a leader in education for the global hospitality industry and a renowned expert in organizational service design, leadership and career development, as well as the impact of strategic human capital investments.
Representatives from the cruise lines include Capt. Patrik Dahlgren, Royal Caribbeans' SVP global maritime operations and fleet optimization for global brands, and Robin Lindsay, the EVP vessel operations for NCLH.
In addition, several experts will serve as senior advisers to the panel, including Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a faculty member and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert in emerging infectious disease epidemiology and outbreak science, and Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, professor emerita of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and an expert in pre-travel health advice and education, global health and the epidemiology of travel-related infections and infectious diseases.