NCL’s Del Rio – It’s “Absolutely Safe” to Resume Cruising
Royal Caribbean – Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)’s “Healthy Sail” Panel made its recommendations to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week in an effort to resume cruise operations. Travel magazines, cruise writers, travel bloggers, and even major newspapers excitedly reported on what they erroneously described as new, comprehensive safety protocols with “100% testing.” NCL’s CEO Frank Del Rio went so far as to claim to the Miami Herald that it is “absolutely” safe to resume cruising again, citing the 74 recommendations proposed by his joint panel. Of course, NCL’s very vocal cruise executive said last May that taking a cruise can be “safer than anywhere else in the world” even before the panel had made a single recommendation. At the same time, Del Rio demanded that the CDC end all restrictions on cruising.
The Truth is that the Risk of COVID19 Infection Still Exists Despite 66 Pages of Recommendations
The panel’s report, containing 74 recommendations explained in 66 pages with 52 footnotes, concedes that even if all of its recommendations were accepted and adopted by the CDC, the risk of COVID19 infection would still exist. The deadly virus may continue to infect guests and crew members notwithstanding the proposed testing and vague modifications to the ships’ air conditioning and filter systems outlined in the lengthy report. The panel admits that cruise guests are at what it describes as a “moderate risk” of becoming infected with COVID19 simply by being in the same ship restaurant with a COVID infected individual for as little as 15 minutes.
The Panel’s “Guiding Principle” is “Providing Americans with Enjoyment of a Leisure Cruise”
The panel’s expressed goal was not to try to eliminate the risk of infection leading to suffering or death. Instead, the panel expressed its intention of providing an opportunity for Americans to enjoy a cruise. Of course, if the panel actually intended to try and avoid the risk of infection it would have simply recommended the CDC’s current guidance for both air and cruise travel that “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.“
Cruise executives Del Rio, who collected $87,854.716, and Royal Caribbean’s Richard Fain who collected $71,938,178, for a total of nearly $160,000,000 in the last six years, have both appeared on financial talk shows like CNBC (above). They have talked, not about issues of death or suffering associated with ending up on a ventilator (or the effect of the pandemic on their enormous wealth), but about the effects of the pandemic on the economy. Indeed, the first paragraph of the RCCL-NCL panel’s report focuses on the economic effects of the no-sail order which, the cruise lines claim, left Americans with “less opportunity to enjoy leisure activities that are important to them.”
The Panel Ignores the Most Effective Protocol – Requiring a Vaccine
Of course, a tested, safe and effective vaccine is the best step to stop guests and crew from getting infected on Royal Caribbean and NCL ships. Cruise activist organizations like Stand.earth and Friends of the Earth both propose that the CDC continue its no-sail order pending a vaccine. Stand.earth submitted a petition with over 50,000 signatures supporting its recommendations. Both groups have pointed to scientific reports that the virus can be transmitted though the air which played a significant role in spreading COVID-19 in previous cruise ship outbreaks.
But the panel refused to recommend the existance of a vaccine as a prerequisite to resuming cruising. Instead, the panel concluded that COVID19 testing of cruise guests and crew members would be the safest way to restarting cruises. In fact, it limited its discussion of a vaccine to just two sentences in its report.
The Panel Recommends Different Testing Protocols for Crew and Guests
The panel recommended that crew members be tested as many as three times before they be permitted on the ship. First, a crew member should be tested 1 to 5 days before leaving home. Only crew members with negative tests are permitted to travel to the ship. Then the incoming crew are quarantined for 7 days. If they exhibit no symptoms, they are then subjected to a second test (a rapid test) at the end of the quarantine period. A third test (a second rapid test) may be administered the day of boarding (if feasible based on costs & the existence and availability of technology).
Guests, however, are not required to undergo mandatory multiple tests under the proposed recommendations. A guest is required only to submit evidence of a negative test, apparently at their own expense, taken as long as five days before the cruise. There is no proposed mandatory requirement for a negative rapid test at the port immediately before embarking. This failure completely ignores that a guest can be infected, after the first test is taken, when they interact with others in airports and buses providing transportation from the airports. The panel suggests that rapid test results (which it concedes are available in as little as 15 minutes for crew members) may be a possible option but claims that they are not “logistically or financially feasible” for passengers. Cruise executive Fain then concedes in a recorded interview last week that rapid tests are currently unavailable. If so, the CDC should clearly not permit the cruise industry to resume cruising at all.
Temperature Probes and Health Questionnaires Won’t Work
The panel recommends that guests may be subject to a temperature probe, but this is not useful if the guest is pre-symptomatic or non-symptomatic. Guests are also required to complete pre-boarding health questionnaires which have been notoriously unreliable is screening out passengers who may already be ill with sicknesses such as norovirus. The reality is that guests who may spend thousands of dollars for a cruise and travel to the port are not going to admit that the may have been in circumstances where they were exposed to the virus.
The RCCL-NCL "Healthy Sail" recommendations do not require multiple tests of guests like they proposed for crew members….
In a nutshell, the limited testing of guests for COVID19, due to either a lack of prioritizing and making such procedures mandatory or due to unavailability of the tests, is an obvious loophole where the virus may enter cruise ships and infect other guests and crew. A guest who becomes positive for the virus after the first test and is asymptomatic at the port will be welcomed on the ship only to infect other guests and crew members. COVID obviously does not distinguish between a crew member and a guest. As one reader of our Facebook page (above) commented – “The virus dont care if you’re a crew member or a diamond-member-VIP-guest . . ” There is no scientific basis to test crew members and guests differently.
The Panel’s Skewed “Balancing” of Safety & Convenience
An insight into this disparency in testing may be gained by reviewing the panel’s “guiding principles” near the beginning of the report. The cruise line panel discussed balancing “what is best from an infection control and medical perspective” with “what is operationally feasible and practical to implement on a cruise ship.” The panel talks about striking the “appropriate balance” between “safety” and “practicality.” It then states that its recommendations were made where activities could be modified to improve safety “without a major impact on the guest experience.”
Perhaps this is why Royal Caribbean and NCL are not recommending that guests undergo mandatory repeated testing. Many potential cruisers have already expressed that they will not go on a cruise if they have to wear a mask. These same type of people may have similar reservations about having to take a tests before they travel and again shortly before they board the ship.
Common words and phrases throughout the report are “costs of testing,” “feasibility,” “feasibility based on costs,” “financially feasible,” and “costs and feasibility.” This loose language provides the cruise lines with wiggle room if they find such protocols too expensive or they otherwise change their minds. The cruise lines probably decided not to incur the expense of testing it’s guests at the ports. Furthermore, the cruise lines undoubtedly understand that many guests who fail tests administered at the port and are not permitted on the ship will complain bitterly after paying for the cruise and traveling to the port.
The U.S. based cruise lines often refer to the generally favorable results of cruising in Italy by MSC Cruises which, so far, has avoided experiencing COVID19 outbreaks on their ships. But that cruise line prudently requires rapid testing of all its guests at the port before they board the ship.
There are several other fundamental shortcomings in the Royal Caribbean – NCL protocols.
No Specified Reduced Ship Capacity – NCL: “We Always Sail With Full Ships”
The cruise lines have all been discussing the possibility of reducing the capacity of its ships when the CDC permits it to sail again. There have been suggestions that ships will sail at 40 – 60 percent of guest capacity. But the panel did not provide an exact percentage to this figure.
Royal Caribbean’s Richard Fain refused to provide an exact figure during a webinar with travel advisors last week, according to the Royal Caribbean Blog. Mr. Fain provided this vague, rambling response to an inquiry about ship capacity: “I think that is something that we will be dealing with. It will change over time. One of the recommendations from the panel is that we do this incrementally. So we start back and we do some test sailing . . . I don’t have a number, and any number I start with is going to be wrong right away afterwards….it may depend on the ships too, it’s not (as if) there’s some magic percentage.”
NCL’s cruise executive Del Rio earlier provided very clear comments regarding this issue. He flatly stated that “one of the hallmarks of the cruise industry is that we always sail with full ships. It’s one of the basic tenets of our business model,” Del Rio told the Financial Times. Lower capacities “would be a severe blow” to financial performance, he added.
CEO Del Rio is right, of course, at least about the industry always operating its increasingly huge ships at 100% occupancy in order to maximize profits. Royal Caribbean made a business decision over a decade ago to embark on building the largest cruise ships at sea which hold record numbers of passengers and crew. Ships like the Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas, among others, led Royal Caribbean to record profits year after year.
Huge cruise ships packed with passengers seems to be one of the factors which led to the CDC issuing its “no sail” order due to the pandemic. In its first no sail order in March, the CDC noted that the “high volume of people” who are assembled and intermingle together is a key feature of cruise ships which the CDC concluded led to the exacerbation of the global spread of the deadly virus.
If the CDC does not require specific mandatory reductions in the ship’s capacity of guests and crew members, these companies will choose to quickly pack customers on their ships to collect the huge amount of revenue that the CEO’s are used to collecting.
The Panel Permits the Cruise Lines Far Too Much Leeway in Implementing, Scaling Down, Modifying or Discontinuing Protocols
The panel recommends providing the cruise lines with virtually unlimited ability to change their protocols at their own discretion. Indeed, the report states that Royal Caribbean and NCL may modify as many as twenty-two of the proposed recommendations, including testing of its guests and crew, temperature probes, the use of mask worn by guests and crew, the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE) by ship employees, and physical distancing. The report specifically states that the protocols can be “scaled down, modified, or discontinued over time.” Included in the list of protocols which can be scaled back and scraped include capacity restrictions, the ratio of medical personnel to guests and crew, contact tracing, use of masks and social distancing during excursions, and the placement of crew in single cabins.
NCL permitted large-scale deck parties this summer on the Norwegian Epic and Nowegian Escape (at the port of Miami) where NCL crew members crowded around bars on the pool decks without any regard to the wearing of masks or social distancing. NCL also crowded multiple crew members into single cabins in defiance of the CDC’s protocols which required a single crew member for each cabin with a balcony.
The Daily Mail published an article titled Shocking images emerge from ‘ridiculously overcrowded’ Norwegian Escape cruise ship that is repatriating 3,800 non-European crew members to Miami as staff complain about tiny shared rooms and NO social distancing.
If NCL is permitted to scale down, modify or discontinue such basic protocols at its discretion, it has aleady proven that it has no respect for the CDC’s oversight and guidelines.
The CDC Needs to Monitor the Implementation of the Protocls with On-Site Inspectors
The panel recommends that the cruise line be allowed to perform a “self-assessment” that they are in compliance with the CDC’s protocols. Cruise lines have been notoriously unreliable in policing themselves to comply with international and federal regulations pertaining to the environment. There is a long-standing history of water and air pollution violations by cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean and NCL. Industry leader Carnival Corporation has been on court probation for widespread dumping of oil, plastic, garbage and trash intermixed with food around the world. There needs to be a CDC inspector paid by the cruise lines on each ship which is permitted to sail once the CDC has established firm measures and metrics.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb – “It’s an Awful Risk to Pack a Lot of People on a Cruise Ship”
Dr. Scott Gottlieb is one of the more notable experts on the joint panel. He is the panel’s co-chair and a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner. He was very vocal last March (before he was paid to be on the panel) when the CDC entered its first No Sail order which 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.
Yesterday, Dr. Gottlieb said to CBS News that with the number of coronavirus cases continuing to rise as the United States heads into the fall and winter months, the country is “taking a lot of infection into a very dangerous season” for the virus. “I think that there’s a lot of concern that we could start to see a real upsurge and this is a continuation of a broader trend underway as we head into the colder months,” Gottlieb said on “Face the Nation.” “We were always facing heightened risk of increased spread of coronavirus as we headed into the fall and winter. Now we’re there. We’re starting to see that increase, and we’re taking a lot of infection into a very dangerous season for this virus.”
The CDC Should Renew its “No Sail” Order to Protect the Health and Lives of U.S. Families
The panel’s recommendations as written will fail if they are adopted. The CDC should continue its “no-sail” order until the panel drops its “safety” versus the alleged “importance of guests enjoying leisure activities” balancing act. These cruise lines unfortunately seem less motivated by public health and safety and more concerned with costs, financial feasibility and the convenience of its paying guests.
The fact is that cruising during a pandemic is inherently dangerous. Both guests and crew members on Royal Caribbean and NCL cruise ships have been infected with COVID before the CDC shut the industry down. Many people infected on cruise ships had to be ventilated and suffered terribly before dying. If the CDC is going to permit the cruise lines to resume cruising before there is an tested and effective vaccine, because of economic considerations, it must insist on robust and repeated testing of all guests who choose to engage in such a recreational activity. It is imperative that the CDC stay involved in monitoring and enforcing the protocols as a condition of the cruise lines being permitted to resume sailing.
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