Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line recently announced that they hired a panel of former public health officials to advise the cruise lines regarding how to safely return to cruise operations. Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio announced that they created the “Healthy Sail Panel” to assure the plans which they intend to submit to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will apply the best available public health and scientific measures. The panel’s co-chair Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, questioned in a recent interview with Travel Weekly whether “taking a cruise potentially be a safer way to vacation in a COVID environment than going to London? I think it might.”

No Safer Vacation?

Several major newspapers picked up on Dr. Gottlieb’s far-fetched claim, including Fox News which published Health Expert Claims Cruise Ship Could Be Safer Travel Than Some Major Cities to Avoid Coronavirus.

The trouble with Dr. Gottlieb’s hyperbolic claim is that it is completely inconsistent with other statements which the former FDA chief made before he was paid to join the joint cruise line team of experts.  In March, the U.S. State Department cautioned U.S. travelers against taking cruises as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded – a warning which, at the time, Dr. Gottlieb said “he fully agrees with,” according to an article in USA TODAY.

Dr. Gottlieb Warns Against Cruising – It’s An Awful Risk

The CDC eventually ordered a suspension of cruises from the U.S. on March 13th after a number of cruise ships experienced outbreaks of COVID-19. The Miami Herald reported that there were over 3,600 infections on cruise ships and around 95 passengers and crew member died due to coronavirus. The New York Times reported an even higher number of cases on more than 100 cruise ships. Incredibly, the Times reported that the virus was aboard almost 90% of the 121 cruise ships which entered U.S. waters after March 1st. The CDC’s No Sail order specifically refers to the fact that “cruise ship travel markedly increases the risk and impact of the COVID-19 disease outbreak.”

“I don’t think anybody should be taking a cruise right now … this is a very sticky pathogen,” the doctor explained last March 9th, and once it gets inside a closed space such as a cruise ship, it spreads widely. He gave the Diamond Princess cruise ship as an example of the wide spread of COVID-19, where more than 700 people were infected and over a dozen people subsequently died. “It’s an awful risk to pack a lot of people on a cruise ship,” Dr. Gottlieb said.

There is no scientific basis for Dr. Gottlieb or any expert to claim that cruising is now safer than it was four months ago. The only difference appears to be that the good doctor is now on the payroll of the cruise lines, a point not lost on many people on Twitter:

The Surge of COVID-19 Cases Will Continue Through This Fall and Winter Long after Cruising is Scheduled to Resume

CBS News interviewed Dr. Gottlieb three days ago on Sunday, July 5, 2020, on “Face the Nation,” one day before Royal Caribbean and NCL that he was co-chair of the “Healthy Sail Panel” which CEO Fain calls the “brain trust.”  Dr. Gottlieb stated in the interview (transcript available here) that there is now a substantial spike in new COVID-19 cases. He noted that the current infection rate of 60,000 cases per day is almost twice of what they were in April, when daily cases were arounnd 35,000. Dr. Gottlieb opined that “This week, maybe we’ll reach 75,000 or get close to it.”  He predicted a “hard fall” and stated there the surge of new COVID-19 cases will continue through the fall and winter (well past the new cruise start up date CLIA announced of September 15th for Royal Caribbean and NCL).

Dr. Gottlieb said last Sunday that “the difference now is that … now we really have four major epicenters of spread: Los Angeles, cities in Texas, cities in Florida, and Arizona. And Florida looks to be in the worst shape.” Ironically, three of these states, Florida, California and Texas, have major cruise ports.

NCL’s CEO: A Cruise Ship is the “Safest Place on Earth” – What About Masks? 

Earlier this summer, NCL CEO Frank Del Rio claimed in a friendly interview with a travel publication that Cruise Ships Can Be Safer Than Anywhere Else. Del Rio went on to argue that “people are rushing to bars and restaurants as they reopen, they want to get back to their normal lives, and cruising is a part of their normal lives.” This week, Del Rio claimed that a cruise ship can be among the “safest places on earth.” Del Rio seems to believe that disregarding the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing and the wearing of masks is a good thing rather than a major problem that needs to be discouraged.

This summer several NCL ships openly flaunted the CDC’s social distancing and mask protocols when the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Epic were at the port of Miami with thousands of crew members aboard. In early May, I wrote two articles about the NCL’s reckless disregard of the CDC’s social distancing and mask policies:  Ridiculously Overcrowded” Norwegian Escape Sails to Miami and Norwegian Epic – the Latest NCL Cruise Ship to Ignore the CDC’s Social Distancing Rule. Many hundreds of crew members were videotaped crowding around bars with no social distancing or wearing of masks.

It should therefore come to no-one’s surprise that when NCL announced its preliminary COVID-19 protocols last week, which NCL calls its “Peace of Mind Safe Sail” measures, there was no mention of the wearing of face protection.

A “Dumb Idea” – Royal Caribbean View Of Masks

Royal Caribbean Richard Fain also doesn’t seem to support the CDC’s face covering protocols. He intimated during an interview last month with Cruise Critic that the a mask was essentially a “dumb idea,” likely for no reason other than polling indicates that few people will to return to crusing if they have to wear a mask.  Ironically, Royal Caribbean filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office this Spring for a new brand of sanitary facial masks, dubbed “Seaface.” The patent states that the mask was designed for “virus isolation purposes.”  Several months ago, a company spokesperson said that if the patent is approved, the company will implement the safety devices on all of its ships across each brand. But recently CEO Richard Fain said that the cruise line is no longer pursuing the mask concept. Fain told Cruise Critic “For innovation to work, you need to look at a lot of ideas, including a lot of dumb ideas … We look at a lot of ideas, and sometimes even the dumbest of them inspire really good related ideas. That was one idea (the Seaface) that was thrown out of which we’re not pursuing.”

What Other Opinions Will the Brain Trust Change?

It will be interesting to see if Dr. Gottlieb abandons his opinion (expressed just last month) and current CDC directives that the wearing of a mask and social distancing are crucial to limiting the spread of COVID-19.  The typical over-stated and non-scientific opinions of cruise executives can be explained, perhaps, as part of their job to their shareholders to promote confidence in their business.  How does Dr. Gottlieb justify the abandonment of his scientific principles?

It’s disappointing to see a doctor who the cruise lines promote as a top epidemiologist and former public health official make such a preposterous claim. Going from correctly labeling a cruise ship as creating an “awful risk” to parroting a cruise executive description as the “safest place on earth” raises  doubts as to the expert’s credibility and the genuiness of the cruise industry’s claim that their customers’ health and safety, rather than money, is its highest piority.

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