In April, the Centers for Disease Control extended a ban on large cruise ships calling on U.S. ports that is slated to expire in July. When the agency did that, it sent a strong message to cruise line operators: Get your safety protocols together or we may extend the ban again.
In the intervening two months, Norwegian Cruise Line has flirted with bankruptcy and faced investigation for deceptive sales practices. NCL Holdings reported a loss of more than $1.6 billion, and the company's VP of sales jumped ship.
Perhaps out of an eagerness to stabilize its reputation and get the bookings flowing again, Norwegian is the first cruise line to come out with the sanitation plan the CDC wanted.
On Monday, the company notified its partners of a new "Sail Safe" program. Here's how NCL says journeys will change once it resumes sailing:
• no more buffets
• no more self-service beverages
• addition of a new position, the Public Health Officer, to oversee the practices of each ship
• fogging of guest areas with hypochlorous acid as a disinfectant. NCL explains: "Hypochlorous acid is a non-toxic, powerful oxidant that effectively kills bacteria, spores, and viruses. It is natural and safe to use in open areas since it is comprised of natural elements such as water and salt, and electric charge."
• constant screenings for high temperatures among passengers—prior to embarkation, upon returning to the ship from a port of call, before meals, before all activities in public venues, and prior to disembarkation (although Frommer's has written about how temperature checks fail to detect many contagious people)
• replacement of existing air filters with medical-grade H13 HEPA filters
• social distancing practices implemented onboard (specifics were not fully explained; the cruise line has said, "All onboard activities will still be available, although operated at a reduced capacity, and in some cases, slightly modified in order to ensure safe social distancing")
• addition of rapid diagnostic testing for Covid-19 and equipment used in treating it
One of the points in the Sail Safe plan, "Extended Ship to Shore Safety," hints at one of the largest issues facing cruise operators that want to return to the seas.
"We’re partnering with our local destinations and tour operators to ensure our industry-leading health and sanitation protocols extend to the shoreside experience," the plan states. "We will only visit safe, open ports of call which may cause changes to your itinerary."
The caveat is a big one. Without reciprocal support from ports of call, itineraries will be barren and the return of cruising will fail.
In March and April, the biggest issue facing cruise ships was not onboard sanitation but the refusal of port after port to allow afflicted ships to dock. Even now, long after passengers were finally allowed to return home, many ships are still bobbing in international waters, forbidden to offload coronavirus-free crew members.
We're still waiting to hear guarantees from most major cruising destinations that they will receive American cruise ships right now—although the issuance of plans such as Sail Safe will certainly help them decide.
But if many ports refuse ships, cruising in the near future will mean many days spent at sea and at familiar domestic ports, getting your temperature checked every time you want to do anything.
You can read NCL's action plan for yourself at the cruise line's website.
Pictured above: Norwegian Bliss. Take our photo tour of the newly built Norwegian Encore, which was christened in November 2019, just before the crisis.