August 10, 2020
(2:15 p.m. EDT ) -- Last week was a discouraging one for cruisers, with COVID-19 cases popping up on the few small ship and international lines that have resumed service.
Norway, where cruising had re-emerged first from the pandemic, has put a two-week docking ban on ships with more than 100 people after Hurtigruten spawned an outbreak that is now past 50 infected passengers and crew. SeaDream I passengers were also forced to quarantine, after a passenger from a previous sailing tested positive for COVID-19.
Despite French Polynesia having some of the most rigorous COVID-19 testing requirements for entry, an American passenger turned up positive, forcing Paul Gauguin to cancel its first cruise with international guests and put them into quarantine.
Small ship operator UnCruise began the first cruise in Alaska, only to jettison it a few days later after a positive COVID-19 test turned up. The line has canceled its very short season.
In an abundance of caution, the Cruise Lines International Association extended suspension of North American service among its member lines for a third time, through October 31, 2020. The move, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opening public comment for resumption of service through late September, makes a full-fledged restart of cruising unlikely for the remainder of 2020.
With the latest COVID-19 outbreaks at sea, where does cruising go from here? We take a look at what lessons can be gleaned from the process -- and what the industry might learn moving forward.
Part of the insidious nature of COVID-19 is that people can carry the virus and present absolutely no symptoms. Most of the positive cases reported on the ships were discovered, by testing, in passengers who were asymptomatic.
While most of the cruise lines that returned to sailing announced new health and safety guidelines, these still weren't enough to catch asymptomatic cases. Passengers on UnCruise were required to show proof of a negative test within five days of arrival to Alaska, with a secondary test at the airport. That second test, with the results given to the passenger once they had already boarded the vessel, came back positive for one passenger.
The asymptomatic passenger on Paul Gauguin had a similar story. The 22-year-old American was able to enter French Polynesia with a negative test taken before she left the U.S., but the required follow-up test came back positive.
In a press post-mortem, UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard said that only rapid response tests would provide results quick enough to get cruising back without a vaccine.
"Had we the availability for rapid testing -- and trust me, we tried -- it's a challenging situation," he said. "Rapid testing could be a way to make this happen."
AIDA, the German cruise line owned by Carnival Corp. & plc, had been set to resume sailings August 1 until a technicality with Italy, where the ship is flagged, delayed resumption.
Crew for the ship arrived from their home countries in late July. While all had taken COVID-19 tests before they flew out, the company required them to take the tests again within a two-week period -- and 10 crew members reported positive results.
A similar event happened in Italy, as crew members arrived for several Costa ships and tested positive.
In a statement, Carnival Corp. spokesperson Roger Frizzell pointed out that the early arrival and multiple testing rounds did what they were supposed to do -- catch positive COVID-19 cases among the crew and deal with them well before passengers board.
"It shows that our strict hygiene protocols developed with the authorities are effective and that we have taken the right preventive measures," the line said in a statement.
Since the incidents, Carnival Corp. has now refined the crew quarantine and testing process. Besides being tested in their own country, crew are tested once they arrive and do not board the ship until they have a negative result. (Neither ship is currently requiring a COVID-19 test from passengers, though). AIDA is now set to begin cruising on September 6.
Conversely, Hurtigruten did not test or quarantine workers from the Philippines before they boarded ships, saying that the crew members had been tested twice in their home country before flying. That violates Norway's own rules for international quarantine, however,
. As of August 10, the positive COVID-19 count from the Hurtigruten outbreak is 41 crew members and 21 guests.
The company has admitted that it violated its own procedures and has launched an internal investigation.
In several of the cruise quarantine situations, the COVID-19 positive passenger had actually been on the previous voyage and not the current sailing. But because the virus has such a long incubation period, signs of spread among the crew, which remain the same from cruise to cruise, might not show up until the following sailing.
By the time cruise passengers leave the ship and head back to their respective countries, contact tracing becomes a more difficult proposition. In the Hurtigruten case, the Norwegian Public Health Institute was forced to contact 69 municipalities and several foreign countries to alert those who had been exposed.
Similarly, the SeaDream I quarantine came not because a passenger on the current sailing was sick but because a Danish tourist tested positive upon his return home. Tests of the crew and current passengers have come back negative. However, the country's ban on ship landings has prompted the company to cancel the short Norwegian season.
It begs the question of whether the quick turn-arounds that have been the hallmark of the cruise industry will work, in the COVID-19 era.
Cruise Critic members have raised the
as a way to ensure better sanitation and cleaning. So far, Hapag-Lloyd is the only line to institute a "down day" between cruises, mostly for better sanitation.
But a delay between sailings might also buy time for previous passengers to record a clean bill of health, or for crew to be tested before a new group of people come onboard.
The COVID-19 incidents this week showed that if an outbreak does occur, fast action is required -- or you face public outrage.
Hurtigruten is being investigated in Norway for its failure to immediately notify passengers of the previous passengers' positive COVID-19 test. By failing to act as soon as it had the information, the line allowed passengers to leave the ship and go into Tromso, potentially exposing residents there. The delay also meant that exposed crew were still interacting with unsuspecting passengers.
Within Norway, Hurtigruten is a powerful brand. The line not only acts as a cruise but also as a ferry service for the country's small coastal towns. It's as well known as Amtrak would be in the U.S.
Now, though, public officials in Norway say that the outbreak and the way the company handled it has eroded trust. "Hurtigruten has been one of the driving forces for the government to open up for this type of activity and provided very convincing documentation of how seriously they should take this," said Bent Hoie, Norway's Minister of Health and Care Services. "Therefore, it is a pity that we have come into this situation. It's sad."
Conversely, UnCruise acted almost immediately when the positive test result came in. Passengers were sent to their cabins and the ship turned around to Juneau, where guests are being quarantined before testing at the cruise line's expense. The company also sent out a press release the same day that the incident occurred and scheduled two press conferences, in different time zones, to get the news out.
Until this week, it didn't seem like any cruise line was putting all of the recommended health guidelines into place. While AIDA has a robust crew screening plan, it is not requiring passengers to get COVID-19 tests before boarding. While French Polynesia and Alaska both required passengers to get negative tests, the five-day timeframe was too short to accurately screen the risk.
MSC Cruises might be changing that. Its health and safety protocols, released this week, are perhaps the most comprehensive yet. Among the changes: rapid-response swab tests in the terminal; wearable tech that can also serve as contact tracing; shore excursions with tour leaders in PPE; capacity restrictions not only on the ship but in theaters and dining venues, and masks when social distancing isn't possible.
In an interview with Cruise Critic, MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato said the protocols were developed taking into account feedback from the governments where the company's first two ships will resume sailing: Italy, Greece and Malta. The company is also providing reasonably priced insurance, in case a passenger is turned away because of a COVID-19 test.
The line has also been upfront about the fact that some of the policies might change, depending on the virus itself.
"These measures are subject to evolution, in accordance with how the pandemic will evolve," Onorato said. "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."
Given the barrage of bad press from the different international outbreaks, as well as from UnCruise in Alaska, it's not surprising that CLIA issued a further suspension this week. Most in the industry believe the last thing that cruise lines need right now is more association with COVID-19, particularly because most people now realize the virus can spread in any indoor gathering, not just on cruise ships.
"We believe this proactive action further demonstrates the cruise industry's commitment to public health and willingness to voluntarily suspend operations in the interest of public health and safety, as has occurred twice prior," CLIA said in its statement.
The CEOs of the major cruise lines have all said publicly that it's better to emerge from the pandemic with new procedures based on science and best practices, as they develop. In the beginning, for example, focus seemed to be on ensuring clean surfaces. Now, after a study of Diamond Princess, consensus is building that ventilation changes may be the answer.
Many of the smaller lines that are not CLIA members are also adopting their return to service timelines. Those who aren't are emerging more cautious than before.
"It's not worth the risk," Blanchard said, of sailing in the current environment. "It (COVID-19) can sneak on there. … It's sobering. It's really sobering."