Two German cruise lines, that were intended to be prototypes for the reopening of U.S. based Carnival Corporation and its rival Royal Caribbean Cruises, have encountered controversy.  Sources have reported that crew members employed by both AIDA Cruises and Mein Schiff, operated by TUI Cruises, tested positive for COVID-19 upon reporting for duty.

Ten AIDA Cruises Crew Members Tested Positive for COVID-19

Last week, ten crew members employed by Carnival Corporation’s German subsidiary, AIDA Cruises, tested positive for COVID-19, according to the German media. The crew members had reportedly tested negative for the virus back in their home countries at some point. But after arriving in Germany earlier last week, they retested positive.

“Ten tests were positive and nine people are symptom-free, one has mild symptoms” according to reports from Germany. The infected crew members were placed in quarantine on one of the AIDA cruise ships and are scheduled to be re-tested today (Sunday). AIDA’s AIDAblu and ADIAmar are expected to restart cruises in August.

AIDA placed a positive spin on the news, announcing that its infected crew members were discovered as a result of its “strict hygiene protocols” which AIDA called the “right preventive measures.” You can read AIDA’s new health protocols on its website under a section which it calls “Certainly the Best Vacation – Safety & Hygiene at AIDA.”

Mein Schiff 1 – Did its Crew Also Test Positive for COVID-19?

Another major German cruise line, Mein Schiff, was intending to sail one of its ships, the Mein Schiff 1, on a cruise from Germany on July 31, but suspended the cruise last week. This was supposed to be one of the test cruises for Royal Caribbean which has a 50:50 joint venture with TUI of Germany which manages the Mein Schiff ships. Royal Caribbean recently touted that it assembled a new group of experts called the “Healthy Sail Panel” to advise it about new policies and protocols to attempt to make cruising during the COVID-19 pandemic safe.

Mein Schiff claimed that it cancelled the cruise because it was unable to fill a re-start team in time for the cruise. However, according to Mein Schiff crew members who we communicated with, the real reason for the cancellation was that seven crew members reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

Cruise Law News requested an explanation from the cruise line but has received no response. A German website, Der Kreuzfahrttester, also made similar inquiries after it published an article titled Blue cruise of the Mein Schiff 1 canceled! What’s the real reason?

Mein Schiff’s 10 Point Health Plan states that “all crew members submitted a negative COVID-19 test before arrival on board,” but there is no such requirement for guests. Like the AIDA protocols, there will be daily temperature checks, including of the guests, but this will not lead to the disagnosis of a asymptomatic traveler.

TUI / Mein Schiff – Full Speed Ahead?

Meanwhile the TUI controlled Mein Schiff seems to be committed to resume cruising. The Mein Schiff 1 is now scheduled to sail, on its first cruise after the pandemic started, on August 3rd. And the German newspaper Deutsche Well reported that last Friday the Mein Schiff 2 sailed from Hamburg on a three-day round trip in the North Sea with around 1,200 passengers, compared to its usual capacity of 2,900. The company had earlier said that the ship would sail at 60% capacity (1,740). Cruise passengers are spending this weekend at sea with no port stops before returning to Germany on Monday.

Deutche Welle reported that “passengers will be required to observe strict physical distancing and hygiene measures on board. They were required to fill out a health questionnaire before boarding, and will not be allowed to serve themselves food at the buffet table.”

No COVID-19 Testing of Guests? Questionnaires and Temperature Tests Won’t Work

The COVID-19 preventative measures of Mein Schiff, like AIDA Cruises, do not include testing of its guests for COVID-19. The website Argophilia in an article titled TUI’s Mein Schiff 2 Sets Sail Into Wicked Public Relations Storm reported that the passengers on Mein Schiff ships will not “even (be) required to have COVID-19 testing (other than a temperature check) before the journey. They are only required to fill out a questionnaire.”

This is consistent with what many people call the COVID-19 cruise restart protocols adopted by the European Union (EU) countries. The EU protocols do not include the mandatory testing of cruise guests. Ironically, the EU protocols were drafted by various individuals, paid by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, who comprise these cruise lines’ joint “Healthy Sail Panel.”

Guests will never completely and accurately complete health questionnaires about COVID-19 in order assist the cruise companies in excluding them from the cruise that they paid for and are prepared to take. Requiring vacationers to be honest about voluntarily disclosing their symptoms just related to gastrointestinal illnesses has not been successful over the years in the cruise lines’ efforts to reduce the spread of norovirus.  And neither a questionnaire nor a temperature probe will lead to the disclosure of COVID-19 by travelers who are not exhibiting symptoms. Indeed, the recent testing of the ten AIDA crew members who were positive for COVID-19 proves this point: 90% of those tested were asymptomatic and the remaining employee who tested positive had only mild symptoms. And they all had already reportedly tested negative before flying to Germany.

The “strict hygiene” measures touted by both lines will accomplish only so much. Eliminating self-service buffets is an obvious no-brainer. “Enhanced cleaning” sounds good but, again, has not been particularly effective in preventing norovirus or e-coli illnesses on cruise ships in the past. The primary method of transmission of coronavirus is not via contaminated surfaces but by droplets and/or airborne particles, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Enforcement of social distancing measures and the mandatory wearing of masks, as well as significantly reducing guest capacity on the ships, are important steps. But failing to test several thousands of guests who board these ships is reckless and irresponsible.

Guests will board the AIDA and Mein Schiff ships in the next month who are infected with COVID-19. They will inevitably infect other guests and crew members and contaminate the ship. But neither company will test the passengers for the virus before boarding. The result, unfortunately, will be entirely predictable (see tweets left and below).

The costs and logistics of testing may be significant and burensome. But the cruise industry has lost literally many billions of dollars since the beginng of the pandemic. The first COVID-19 outbreak on a cruise ship sailing from a port in Germany may well be a death blow to the struggling cruise industry.

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Photo credit: Mein Schiff 2 – Von HenSti – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia.; AIDAmar – Sebaso – CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia.

Tweets: At least some people see the danger in cruising during a pandemic: