(2:15 p.m. EDT) -- In anticipation of a limited restart of cruising later this month in the Mediterranean, MSC Cruises gave more details of their health and safety protocols Tuesday, which are shaping up to be among the most sweeping and innovative that the cruise industry has seen so far.
Speaking on a conference call with media, MSC CEO Gianni Onorato detailed the new health and safety initiatives that are expected to roll out later this month aboard MSC Grandiosa and MSC Magnifica.
Sailings aboard the two vessels, which would initially be limited to residents of Schengen (European Union) countries, could start as early as August 15, pending the approval of the Italian government. Initially, MSC plans to deploy MSC Grandiosa from Genoa on sailings to the Western Mediterranean, while MSC Magnifica takes up weeklong Eastern Mediterranean runs to Greece from the Italian port of Bari. Both vessels will initially be limited to 70 percent of their normal capacity.
While some practices, such as social distancing and limited occupancy onboard and in public venues onboard, should come as no surprise, MSC revealed a number of industry-firsts that could pave the way for cruising to safely resume in the age of coronavirus. Among them:
Swab Tests at Embarkation; Staggered Boarding
As part of MSC's reimagined check-in process, passengers will undergo a mandatory COVID-19 swab test along with the standard security process. Only then will they be allowed to proceed to check-in.
"We have equipped all the cruise terminals where there is embarkation of guests with medial stations," says Onorato. "Guests will be swab-tested through these medical stations. Once they've completed the swab, they can proceed for check-in."
Once the swab test is complete, Onorato says passengers will likely have to wait between 60 and 90 minutes before they can be admitted onboard. This delay is in order to receive the results of the swab tests.
"They guests will be able to embark only once the results have been received," says Onorato. "Anyone with a temperature or symptoms will be denied boarding."
Digital Contact Tracing Bracelets
MSC will be testing out its MSC for Me wristband aboard MSC Grandiosa sailings from Genoa,. In the past, the wristband has been used to complete transactions onboard and to perform functions like opening stateroom doors.
That will continue aboard MSC Grandiosa, but it will also serve an important dual-purpose for all passengers and crew, including functioning as a contract tracing app. In the event of a COVID-19-positive case onboard, contacts of the infected individual can quickly be identified and isolated to prevent further spread.
Onorato notes that no passengers will be quarantined indefinitely onboard, though ships will have approximately 10 percent of capacity set aside as quarantine cabins. Instead, Onorato and his team have identified shoreside health care providers in all ports that can serve as quarantine facilities, if necessary.
Data held from the MSC for Me wristbands is deleted 14 days after disembarkation.
Other enhancements include the use of the MSC for Me App to facilitate a number of new features, and the introduction of a new Information Center that can be accessed via stateroom telephone that eliminates the need for passengers to visit the Guest Services desk in person.
Dedicated Shore Excursions
One of the most interesting aspects of MSC's new COVID-19 health and safety protocols is the requirement that passengers must take part in an MSC-designed shore excursion in order to disembark the ship.
Initially, no independent explorations ashore will be allowed. MSC has instead designed a collection of shore excursions in each port that will use guides wearing PPE and which conform to all local health and safety protocols on shore. This helps to further control passengers onshore and help protect local communities in the event of any sort of medical outbreak, while still providing passengers with an enjoyable experience.
In many ways, it is not so dissimilar to an expedition cruise experience, where passengers typically only disembark as a group and rarely travel ashore independently.
MSC will offer at least one of these excursions complimentary for all cabin grades, though additional excursions can be purchased depending on the cabin "Experience" that cruisers book. MSC's "experiences" come with numerous inclusions, including drink packages and other offerings.
Passengers booking stays in the MSC Yacht Club, MSC's luxury ship-within-a-ship concept, will receive all five shore excursions (one in each port of call) for free. Passengers in other cabin grades can purchase up to three shore excursions for a flat, all-in rate of 100 Euros per person.
Passengers wishing to explore independently will be required to take an excursion, as no one will be allowed off the vessel without one. Passengers wishing to stay onboard are welcomed to do so.
MSC notes that these rules also apply to its own crewmembers. The line is reportedly working on group tours for crew wishing to go ashore in port as well.
QR Codes, No Self-Service Food Options
It should come as no surprise that self-serve buffets will not be a part of the cruise experience. The buffet will still exist, however. Instead of serving food yourself, MSC crewmembers will serve and plate food for you once you've made your selections.
In the ship's dining rooms and specialty venues, QR codes can be scanned by any smartphone to pull up a digital menu. Menus will continue to change each day in the main dining room.
Masks, Social Distancing and HEPA-Airflow
Masks will be mandatory in areas where social distancing can't be achieved. Onorato pointed out places like corridors and elevators, but it isn't unreasonable to expect to have to wear a mask in any confined space.
Those restrictions won't apply to open deck spaces (as long as social distancing can be maintained) or to bars and dining venues when eating or drinking. Masks will also not be required when in the comfort of your own cabin.
Social distancing protocols will also be enforced throughout the ship, but Onorato says that the vessel's reduced capacity should naturally aid in this.
"In this restart of cruising we will operate with a maximum occupancy of 70 percent," says Onorato. "This means there will be less guests onboard, and more space for everyone. This will change, in a way, the way that we manage the guest activities. There will be some public venues that will have capacity reduced by 50 percent. We will ask passengers to respect the social distancing and when this is not possible, it is essential to use face masks."
In a nod to a growing amount of evidence that COVID-19 spreads rapidly through small particles in heating and ventilation systems, known as HVAC, Onorato announced MSC has taken increased steps, including offering 100 percent fresh air in all public spaces, cabins and crew staterooms.
"We will also be using UV-C technology, especially in the public rooms and the cabins, with HEPA medical-grade filters, 'says Onorato. UV-C is a type of germicidal irradiation that destroys microorganisms like COVID-19, and has been implemented by other cruise lines like Windstar Cruises.
COVID-19 Protection Plan Insurance
MSC will offer passengers, as an optional add-on, COVID-19 protection insurance. Priced at 18 Euros per person, per cruise, this insurance covers passengers in the event they are denied boarding; have to cancel their cruise; or are stricken with coronavirus during the sailing. This insurance provides for a refund of the cruise fare and even transportation costs in order for passengers to quarantine at home, or to return home.
While not medical insurance per se, this coverage allows for European passengers to cruise with peace of mind that they will not be economically inconvenienced at any point in their journey. It is likely that when MSC resumes offering cruises for international passengers that similar insurance will be offered.
"It is comprehensive coverage which I believe will be very much appreciated by our guests," says Onorato. "This insurance is quite affordable and covers numerous aspects."
Health and Safety Measures Can Be Adapted
Onorato says MSC can choose to relax or enhance restrictions depending on the pandemic's situation on land, or on the advice from local authorities. He noted that the ongoing COVID-19 situation is still very dynamic and says that MSC is ready to change and adapt along with it.
"These measures are subject to evolution, in accordance with how the pandemic will evolve," says Onorato. "We know more and more that there are new technologies and a growing know-how on how to fight the virus, and as these new technologies and procedures are coming out, we will adjust and adapt our protocols."
Still an Enjoyable Cruise
One thing that Onorato stressed repeatedly was that MSC is ready to go and is committed to giving its guests the cruise experience they know and love.
"The cruise will still be rich and enjoyable for our guests," he remarked. "We have redesigned all our activities. Our famous MSC theatre shows will have more performances than normal. We have worked hard to revisit our team events, our family and kids' games, to rework them while using social distancing protocols or facemasks."
Onorato also thanked the crewmembers aboard MSC's ships, some of whom have been working onboard for months now to maintain the ships while cruising is paused with no shore leave.
"The crew has been very faithful to MSC Cruises in this long period," he said. "We were even obliged to ask them to stay onboard and so for some of them they've spent months without the possibility to go shoreside. This was necessary for us to maintain the ship's safety to keep people onboard safe, and away from the risk of the spread of the virus."
"We are ready to go. We've worked very hard; we've worked a lot. We hope for our employees, for our crew, that this restart can happen very soon."