Cruise panel: Ships may be safer than shore

Cruise panel: Ships may be safer than shore

“Could taking a cruise potentially be a safer way to vacation
in a Covid environment than going to London? I think it might.”

The speaker, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, is a former commissioner of
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and co-chair of a panel of public health
experts put together by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line
Holdings Ltd. to develop health and safety protocols for the cruise industry to
resume operations. 

He made the statement during a Zoom call with Travel Weekly
that also included co-chair Mike Leavitt, a three-term governor of Utah and
secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W.
Bush administration, Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain and Norwegian
chairman Frank Del Rio.

“In some ways, you have exquisite control over the
environment” on a cruise ship, Gottlieb said, which provides the opportunity to
introduce enhanced levels of public health protocols that can substantially
reduce risk.

“Nothing is risk-free,”
he acknowledged. But a cruise line has tight control over the environment on a
ship and also over “who gets into the protective bubble, and what you are doing
in the bubble.”

The implementation of better public health controls around a
cruise experience is “what we’re striving for,” Gottlieb continued. “We’re
trying to come up with a set of measures that can be adaptable in a high
prevalence environment as well as the future lower prevalence environment where
[the virus] will continue to be a threat but, hopefully, a much lower threat.”

The panel has closely followed the European Union’s
guidelines
for the resumption of cruising, which includes recommendations for onboard
separation by age group. NCLH CEO Frank Del Rio said he does not expect to adopt
that policy for ships leaving from U.S. ports. 

“There will never be one absolute measure that will be the
golden bullet,” Del Rio said. “It’s a matter of layers. There will be layers on
embarkation, and testing, and levels of cleanliness, and technology that we
will use. I’m hopeful that we will have multiple layers so that breaking up or
dividing the populace of our guests into predetermined groups of age or
nationality or anything else that is any way exclusionary won’t be necessary. I
hope that is some extreme measure that hardly ever has to be put in use.” 

Del Rio and Fain said each of them knew the other was
seeking to build a panel of experts — Fain was already talking to Leavitt and
Del Rio with Gottlieb — when they decided to join forces.  

“We said, ‘This is a marriage made in heaven,’” Fain said. “Our
objectives were the same. We both wanted a panel of the best of the best. We
both wanted to do everything to make our ships as safe as humanly possible. We
said, ‘Let’s do this together’ and so far, it’s been a terrific experience.” 

Addressing why Carnival Corp. is not part of the panel, Del
Rio said that they didn’t think they’d achieve much by bringing on more experts
and that the goal was never to be proprietary.

“We want to share it with the industry,” he said. “We have
CLIA’s support. Our goal is that we have recommendations and the protocols that
will be widely available to the entire industry, and hopefully widely adopted
by the entire industry. As we’ve seen before, we all suffer when things occur
onboard ships, and we don’t want that to occur again. We are confident the work
being done will safeguard that.”

Gottlieb said that
one of the reasons he and Leavitt are so enthusiastic about this project is
that it can be implemented widely.

“We feel like the process and structure we’ve come up with
could be a model for how other industries adjudicate risk,” he said. “Other
industries face similar challenges. Obviously not with the same nuance and
complexity of this industry, but we feel like it can be a best in class effort
for how to adjudicate and contemplate those issues.”

The panel meets regularly and is broken up into working
groups that focus in-depth on various parts of the cruise, including testing
protocols, modifying the ship to improve health, safety and hygiene. and
destination and route planning. 

The group looking at shore excursions, for example, is
exploring what activities can be allowed and how to control passengers once
they are off the ship in an environment where there might be risks, Gottlieb
said. 

He added that the ultimate goal is to create an environment
that mitigates risk in a world where Covid “will always be a threat that
persists.”

“As part of the overall recommendations, there will be an
overlay that deals with what the prevalence is,” he said. “What kind of
environment are we in? The environment we’re in in the next six months is very
different than in 24 months. What you do in the fall and winter in terms of
risk reduction will look different than the summer of 2021, after you have a
vaccine and higher levels of immunity. We’re addressing both.”

Leavitt said that the panel is not only studying the EU’s
guidelines for the resumption of cruising, but looking at what other markets
worldwide are doing.

“We believe the cruise lines will be operating in the future
in an environment that will be fluid,” he said. “The virus will be alive even
if we do have a vaccine. There will be destinations that have flare-ups. In the
future. we may well see a Covid-19 alert in a particular part of the world. The
cruise lines have got to be adaptable and flexible enough that they can begin
to choose their destinations factoring in accurate data. And be able to pivot
when required.” 

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