Back to Travel – Crusing III.2

No picture for this article…the cruise lines aren’t cruising which means Janet and I aren’t cruising which means no pictures, and I fear that cruising at least from the U.S. won’t be happening in 2020 even as other sectors of the leisure travel industry are resuming somewhat normal operations as you can tell from our recent trip to Cancun. Which by the way was COVID-19 safe and an amazing experience. I can’t believe I am writing this. I had such high hopes, and I am such a huge fan of cruising. Even now. It isn’t official yet, but reading the tea leaves, that’s what I see. In my last article I addressed some of the macro issues associated with cruising in the COVID-19 era. For this article I want to dig a bit deeper into some of the changes you are likely to see with the shipboard experience once cruising does resume.

I’ll start with a couple of big issues that I missed in the last article, and then finish up with things you are more likely to notice on your next cruise. Much of this is still up in the air as the CDC and cruise lines continue to sort things out, so keep your expectations in check. As long as the pandemic is with us, there is no way cruising is going to be the same as it was before COVID-19, and until there is an effective vaccine that day is somewhere out in the future. But in my view cruising as a major sector in the travel industry is NOT going away!

Oh and two more things. Janet tells me I need to be clear about this….these are all my opinions. Formed by extensive research, but not in any manner intended to be predictive so don’t base any of your travel planning on this article. It is merely intended to give our cruising clients a few things to think about. And my son Chris and his wife Kelly who both work the in the medical field have given us such sage advice that we are following. Our life is such that we have more days behind us than ahead of us so for that reason, we WILL be traveling. But as Chris and Kelly advise we will be self-quarantining for at least 14 days after each trip and making a appointment with our family doctor for COVID-19 testing. Our family doctor is the same doc that we have had for the past 35+ years (Dr. Robert Knight)…he knows us and he knows medicine, and we will follow his guidance totally.

The Elephant in the Room

The cruise industry has invested a huge chunk of money into building up infrastructure in the ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. That pretty much ties the return to cruising for us Americans to how effectively the state of Florida, and more specifically the Broward and Miami-Dade County governments, can manage their rate of COVID-19 infections. Why? Because if they keep going in the direction they have been lately, nobody will be allowed in or out. This is the single most important factor to watch if you have an interest in cruising anytime in the next year. Janet and I already have two cruises booked for ourselves in 2021, but we’ve also had two other cruises we had scheduled for 2020 cancelled. Even so, we’ll keep planning. Cruising is easily our favorite way to relax, and we are both optimistic about its return. Eventually.

The CDC has published a return to sailing roadmap for the cruise lines and they have updated it several times. I have read it and frankly find it to be pretty worthless. My read of the document suggests the CDC doesn’t have a clue what they expect of cruise lines. Rather, they are reacting to media reporting about a single outbreak aboard a ship that never entered a U.S. port. The CDC’s statistics are internally inconsistent and conflicting, and the cruise lines have challenged them, for good reasons in my view.

As a nation we need to tread carefully here. The more I learn about COVID-19 the more I realized just how wicked it is. For most, it is benign. For some it is bad. For others it is deadly. For all it is unbelievably contagious. Any public forum or venue needs to be extremely careful to ensure they take all proper precautions. The cruise lines can do this, but they need to make adjustments and investments in technology like UV sterilization and upgraded air filtration systems. My worry is they will take the approach of waiting out the virus in the hopes of a vaccine, foregoing what would be costly fleet upgrades. I hope I am wrong on that because those upgrades will pay dividends well into the future. Like during the next pandemic…and there will be one.

Cruising is a profitable industry that has brought many millions of dollars into the U.S. economy. BUT…the Asian market is HUGE and growing. If we attempt to over regulate the cruise lines because of COVID-19,  we run the risk that they will move their main ports of entry elsewhere and that would kill a major sector of the U.S. tourist economy. As I see it, that is the trajectory we are on unless the CDC gets their act together. The cruise lines WILL NOT go out of business. There will almost certainly be some compaction/consolidation. I am already seeing the early signs of that, but in the business world that isn’t a bad thing…it is how they survive.

What bothers me most about the CDC approach with the cruise industry is that they are allowing other sectors of the travel industry to operate with impunity while they levy highly restrictive limitations on the cruise lines. Cruising has been shut down since mid-March, full stop. Airlines and hotels have been free to operate throughout the pandemic. Airplanes can fly full, or with middle seats open. It is up to them. Hotels can book up entire floors or not. It is up to them. Airlines and hotels both can require face masks or make them optional…it is up to them as long as they comply with local executive orders. Airlines can require social distancing by keeping passengers in their seats throughout the flight…or not. It is up to them. The CDC has given the cruise lines none of that flexibility. Admittedly cruising is a totally discretionary form of travel, but there should still be some consistency. That does not mean I am endorsing irresponsible practices that put people’s lives at risk. Not at all. I just expect consistency and clarity, and when it comes to the cruise industry with regard to COVID-19 the CDC has given neither. They must do better.

I can’t tell you specifically what changes the cruise lines will be making once they resume sailing since the CDC can’t seem to get their act together on it. I can tell you some things I think the cruise lines will do differently based on seeing how they have dealt with infectious disease outbreaks in the past and based on my understanding of what drives this sector of the travel industry.

Isolation and Evacuation

This is the biggest bee under the CDC’s bonnet for some reason. It never bothered them with Norovirus or any other bug cruisers might pick up, but because of the media optic for COVID-19, they have dug in their heels. They aren’t nearly as worried about the cruise line practices for prevention, nor for risk mitigation, which by the way far surpass other sectors of the travel industry. Nope…they are responding to public optics molded by hyperbolic media reporting. Unless something unexpected happens as did with the SARS virus which pretty much mutated itself out of existence, COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. That means the risk of COVID-19 infections and outbreaks in a wide range of public settings will continue to be a very real thing. Cruise lines can and will do as much as possible to limit that risk, but as long as people do stupid things like lying on their embarkation health survey and failing to wash their hands as often as they should, it is a reality the cruise lines will have to deal with. Don’t like that? Then don’t cruise. It sounds harsh, but it really is that simple. You cannot regulate stupidity and arrogance out of existence, which is the path the CDC seems to be on with the cruise industry. Certainly, if you are in a high risk group for COVID-19 definitely defer your cruise plans. But as I noted in my last article, with the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program the average person is less likely to contract a disease, including COVID-19, on a cruise ship than in a public venue on land. That is a factually based statement from the CDC’s own data. IM me if you want source info.

The biggest single sticking point right now to the CDC authorizing cruise lines to resume cruising is how to deal with the individual cases of COVID-19 that will occur on cruise ships. It isn’t a question of if but when. It will happen. It already happens in just about any public venue on land, and cruise ships won’t be any different. You cannot will or regulate this virus out of existence. You can only seek to manage it and mitigate the outcome. The most important thing will be early detection and immediate action to limit a single digit occurrence of the virus from becoming a full blown triple digit outbreak like it did on the Diamond Princess back in February.

From the CDC’s study of the Diamond Princess outbreak it seems the ship’s passenger quarantine was reasonably effective, reducing the infection rate from 1 to 7 down to under 1 to 1. And by the way this is another stat that the CDC has changed over time and it doesn’t appear to be because of more empirial data, rather they seem to be adjusting the data to fit their anti-cruise narrative. I truly hope I am wrong about this, because before this I have been the biggest fan of how rigidly the CDC has held the cruise industry to the highest level of health and sanitization standards. Now, comparing how they are treating cruise lines with other sectors of the travel industry I think there is an agenda at work here that is not positive.

In any event, there does seem to be agreement that the reason the Diamond Princess outbreak continued to spread was that the quarantine was limited to passengers. Once under control within the passenger population, the virus spread like wildfire through the crew because they were excluded from the quarantine. To make matters worse, infected crew members were transferred to other ships in the Princess fleet thereby seeding two additional outbreaks. This was an important lesson learned by the cruise lines.

In the past cruise lines have worked to limit the spread of infectious diseases like the Norovirus on their ships by isolating passengers to their cabins. What the CDC is expecting for COVID-19 is that the cruise lines will reserve an entire section of each ship physically separated from the rest of the ship as a COVID-19 isolation ward. Anyone either diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19 would be moved into that isolation ward and their cabin shut down and sanitized top to bottom. I fully agree with that approach. Cruise lines haven’t bought into it yet. It isn’t that they don’t want to, it is just a logistical problem in terms of how to manage active bookings while holding back reserved space, and the CDC being more definitive with their expectations. I have no doubt this will get worked out, but in order for the cruise lines to be able to come up with workable plans the CDC needs to get their act together and establish concrete standards. That hasn’t happened yet.

Aside from the issue of passenger and crew isolation or quarantine in the event of a COVID-19 infection onboard a cruise ship, the CDC is also challenged to provide workable guidance regarding how to get infected people off a ship safely and without risk of further spread of the virus. To date the CDC has taken a very hard line approach by demanding that cruise lines pay for expensive private transportation to evacuate anyone with COVID-19 from a cruise ship. That is a non-starter. For one thing, no other sector in the travel industry is held to that high of a standard. Secondly, with all of the national immigration regulations cruise lines have to comply with, what works for one nation won’t work for another. To me this seems to be the key stumbling block. The cruise industry needs maximum flexibility when it comes to either evacuating or disembarking a person with COVID-19 from one of their ships. They can do it safely without having to resort to expensive private evacuation…it is done all the time from land based facilities, but the CDC is not budging on that point. If anything holds the cruise lines back it will be this thing.

Addressing those two issues, onboard quarantine or isolation and embarkation or evacuation of infected people are the sticking points to cruise lines returning to sailing. Everything else is doable, the cruise lines know how to do it, and they have been doing it for years. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at what you can expect once cruising does resume, which it will.

PPE for Crew. Based on the CDC reports, some of the criticisms against the cruise lines, particularly in their most recent report, is that not all crew members follow the PPE guidelines once they leave public spaces. Another point the CDC has noted is that crews have tended to relax compliance once they depart and sail beyond U.S. waters. That is absolutely fair criticism and a problem the cruise lines must fix.

PPE for Passengers. The extent to which passengers will be required to use face masks throughout the cruise has not been decided. My view…you should expect to have to wear a mask throughout the embarkation and debarkation process, during the mandatory muster drill, in the entertainment venues during shows, and traversing from point to point on the ship.  Royal Caribbean just announced a new approach to the muster drill that will eliminate the need for thousands of cruisers to crowd in together for the half hour it takes to explain how to put on your life jacket. This drill is a US Coast Guard mandated requirement so I hope Royal Caribbean hasn’t gotten ahead of them. I truly hope their new approach is accepted. It is an idea long overdue.

Sanitization and Hygiene. Long before COVID-19 hit, the cruise lines developed and implemented effective enhanced sanitization protocols to help them deal with the plethora of bugs that cruisers bring on board with them, to include the Norovirus. Royal Caribbean has a clever and catchy animated video and song that to this day sticks in my head…”Spread the word and not your germs…wash your hands it’s the right thing to do.” Yes, people still get sick on cruise ships but largely it isn’t because of anything the cruise lines do wrong. It is because people are stupid. They lie about their health on the embarkation health survey, they grab food from the buffet with their bare hands and then put it back, and they fail to wash their hands when they should. All of these things are not unique to cruise lines, but for some reason the CDC is holding them to a higher standard than land based public facilities.

Touchless check-in. Limiting touchpoints is one of the key strategies that has helped land based resorts operate successfully and you can expect to see the concept applied to cruising. The newest cruise ships already offer this as a service and it really does speed things up. Expect to see the cruise lines extend this service to all of their ships.

Health questionnaire/survey. Based on our experience in Cancun recently, and everything I am reading and hearing about from the cruise industry, you can expect the standard Norovirus-oriented health survey to be expanded to include questions related to COVID-19. While that should come as no surprise, there are a few wildcards out there. Some of the Caribbean countries that are popular cruise ports of call require a negative COVID-19 test. So far I have no inkling the cruise lines will be asking for either a negative COVID-19 test or a positive antibody test as proof of immunity. That is subject to change as we learn more about the virus which is one of the reasons my prior article discussed the limitations I expect to see with cruise itineraries until there is a vaccine.

Temperature Screening. Cruise terminals will have passive temperature scanners installed to detect anyone with a fever above the threshold associated with COVID-19 since that is the key indicator of infection. At least for symptomatic people. We passed through several of these in Cancun and they are painless, and do not disrupt the flow of traffic. What you may encounter if you do register a fever is a process similar to getting pulled into secondary screening at an immigration checkpoint. It isn’t an automatic disqualifier, particularly if you are in an environment that is hot. Expect to be allowed to sit in a cool and quiet place and then retested after a reasonable time. If you continue to run a fever you will likely be told you can’t cruise, but cruise lines are developing policies that will allow you to get a full refund for your cruise fare. Far too often people travel sick because of strict cancellation penalties, and the cruise lines are well aware of that. Their health screening is intended to reward honesty, not penalize it.

Staggered boarding times…enforced. Cruise lines have been attempting to follow this practice over the past few years, without much luck. Janet is the worst offender…she wants to be the first person on the ship no matter what her assigned boarding time says. Actually enforcing a staggered boarding policy will makes things easier for the crew, and makes the embarkation process less of a cluster for passengers and enhances social distancing.

Face Masks. Yes. Passengers will be required to wear masks. If you have a medical condition that precludes you from wearing a face mask, don’t plan to cruise. You just aren’t that special to put everyone else on the ship at risk. Sorry if that sounds harsh. But not really. I don’t see you having to wear masks  in your cabin, yes in public areas, probably not at the pool, not in dining or drink venues, but maybe on deck. This is one area the CDC is failing miserably in terms of establishing an industry wide standard. It doesn’t matter to me if it is restrictive…just make it standard so everyone who gets on a cruise ship knows what to expect. That isn’t happening on airplanes either and that is flat out wrong.

Reduced passenger load. This will be key to allowing for social distancing in public areas. I am hearing 40-60% fill rates for capacity control purposes. Ships will remove tables from dining facilities to allow for proper social distancing. In public venues like nightclubs and entertainment venues where the seating is fixed, look for things like tape or some other barrier to denote the proper social distancing. I do expect that there will be some allowance for family groups traveling together.

Enhanced cleaning. This is not new and will likely be transparent to frequent cruisers. It will be similar to the practice followed when Norovirus makes an unwelcome appearance on a ship. You’ll see crew members sanitizing stair railings, elevators, pool deck chairs…you name it…on an hourly basis if not more often. If you cruise often like me and Janet, you won’t even notice.

Jimmy Buffet. That is the only Buffet that you’ll find on cruise ships once they resume sailing. The era of the self-service buffets will be a thing of the past. Janet has booked immune compromised clients on cruises in past years and the most important recommendation she makes is for them to avoid the buffet. Some cruise lines will do away with buffets completely. Those that retain them will do so with crew-served stations similar to the old mess hall I used to eat in when I was in the Army. You grab a tray and pass through the line with mess specialists slopping grub on your plate so nobody else has to touch it. Hopefully the food will be better! This is actually long overdue. I can’t tell you the number of times Janet and I witnessed a cruiser picking their nose or their butts, grabbing a slice of pizza from the buffet, and then changing their minds and putting it back. And those were the adults! Yes it is gross, and yes we most definitely let crew members know when we saw this, but I shudder to think of the times it happened that someone didn’t notice. Buffets need to go away period.

Hand washing or sanitizing. Expect rigid enforcement of the requirement to wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before entering restaurants and public venues like pubs, nightclubs, and entertainment venues. This already kinda sorta happens on cruise ships, though enforcement is hit or miss. This will become mandatory with no exceptions. If you have an issue with hand sanitizer and skin sensitivity, plan to get a doctors note and bring your own clearly marked product that meets required standards of alcohol content to be effective at killing the COVID-19 virus, or your own hypoallergenic soap. As with the face masks, sorry but you are just not special enough for your skin condition to put the rest of the ship’s passengers and crew at risk.

UV sterilization and sanitization of surfaces and air. This is the one area airlines are superior to cruise lines. The newest airplane designs feature state of the art air filtration and UV sterilization systems that virtually eliminate almost all bacterial and viral bugs. This is not a cheap fix for cruise lines and I expect they are playing a bit of a wait and see approach before they dive in and make the investment. If the CDC mandates it, they will and this is one area I fully support CDC regulation. There will always be another bug out there waiting to infect us.

Digital apps rule. That daily activity guide that your cabin steward leaves on your bed at turn down will be a thing of the past. As will paper menus in the dining establishments and bars. Expect the cruise lines to transition to a combination of digital apps and one time use throw away menus. The biggest thing with COVID is reduce touchpoints as much as possible. This is actually a direction cruise lines had been moving in prior to COVID-19, just as they have with touchless check-in and it will be a welcome change for most people.

Throw pillows and bedspreads gone. Interior designers for cruise lines are even now looking at how they can minimize the chances for surface contamination without sacrificing aesthetics and comfort. This should be an easy win for the cruise lines.

Welcome and turn down amenities. Gone or significantly scaled back. Forget about that chocolate mint on your pillow at night or the welcome aboard chocolate covered strawberries. While nice gestures, those things represent unnecessary touchpoints that can be eliminated without significantly reducing the cruise experience. Turn down service will also fundamentally change. Cleaning and sanitization will take place, but the schedule will likely change. Because of COVID-19 the CDC recommendation for land based hotels is every 3-4 days. I don’t see that being extended to cruise ships because the twice daily room servicing is more about cleaning than it is turn-down. I expect the twice daily cleanings will be more focused on cleaning than the aesthetics of turn down service.

Inside cabins may be kept empty. I have heard this is something being considered, for several reasons. First, it is consistent with the intent to limit capacity. If you aren’t going to fill the ship it makes sense to keep the lowest revenue cabins empty. The other thing it does based on the design of most ships is provide a ready reserve of space for any needed quarantine ward for passengers and crew.

Casino, fitness and spa facilities. This is a tough one as these tend to be revenue generators for the cruise lines. Expect a compromise of more frequent cleaning for the casino and fitness facilities with social distancing measures in place. For casinos expect every other or every third slot machine to be open, and space at tables to be more limited. For spa services, expect more limited time availability as the spa will need to be capacity controlled rather than capacity maximized as they usually are. Also expect much more extensive use of PPE from the staff. Probably not a full hazmat suit when you go in for that massage, but definitely face mask, plastic face guard/shield, and gloves.

Entertainment Venues. Theaters will be limited in capacity in keeping with the need to maintain social distancing. Given that ships will be operating at a significantly lower capacity, I don’t think this will impede anyone’s ability to see the shows they are interested in.

Port calls. Wow…this is the biggest wild card. As noted in my last article I expect port calls to be very limited for the first 3-6 months after cruise ships resume sailing. All port calls and shore excursions will be subject to host country COVID-19 restrictions, and these may change on a regular basis. The cruise lines are all well equipped to manage this aspect of cruising since port call and shore excursion deviations are a regular part of cruising. The biggest issue will be keeping passenger expectations and disappointments in check. Some ports will require passengers submit proof of either negative COVID-19 testing or a positive COVID-19 antibody test, or both before allowing passengers to disembark. This is the one area that is the most murky and could provide cruise lines with their biggest headaches.

Wrap up

No doubt there will be more info to come and I will update these posts as more info becomes available. Cruising as a vacation option is not going to go away. Whether or not the CDC gets their act together and provides both meaningful and effective protective measures remains to be seen. It is not keeping me and Janet from booking ourselves on cruises, but we aren’t pushing clients to book because of the huge uncertainties. The cruise lines understand all of this and have implemented cancellation policies that make it easy to book a cruise with confidence and with minimal financial risk.

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