Two major cruise companies have created a joint blue-ribbon task force to try to find comprehensive solutions to the industry's most vexing problem: how to keep ship passengers and crew safe from the coronavirus.
Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings together launched the "Healthy Sail Panel," as it's being called, with the goal of looking at every facet of safety, from whether ultraviolet lights can effectively kill the virus to how to improve meal service.
Some of the proposed changes might prove costly, like whether to modify ships to promote social distancing. And such recommendations could smack into the evolving nature of how to best fight the coronavirus, including how soon a vaccine might be on the way.
That's okay, say the group's co-chairs, Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
It's not just about coronavirus, they say, but overall prevention of diseases – including any that might pop up in the future – on ships.
"We are not only looking at COVID, but we think there will be changes to the way people look at cruising altogether," Leavitt said.
So far, there are no conclusions, Leavitt said. The experts' panel has met only twice. Short-term recommendations could take two months and ideas for the longer term could take up to a year. He said the group plans to share its findings with the entire cruise industry since "we don't want safety to be the basis of competition."
For now, cruise ship fleets around the world have been idled, waiting out the pandemic. Major operators, including giants Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line, have extended the cruising suspensions into September.
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While time may be on their side for the moment, the task is huge. Gottlieb said that among other things, the panel hopes to find ways to control the spread of a virus even if a single infected passenger boards a ship.
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Though COVID-19 sickened and killed passengers and crew as it spread around the world earlier this year, ships have one advantage over cities: A more controlled environment, Gottlieb said. He adds that cruise operators can regulate the flow of passengers through hallways, decide what technology will best find or kill the virus and establish rules about congregating.
Yet establishing the new protocols is a complicated task.
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There's "not one silver bullet" when it comes to making a ship safer, said Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. "This is layers on top of layers on top of layers."