As the cruise industry's Nov. 1 restart date approaches, companies have implemented new health protocols and submitted them to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, slowly painting a picture as to what cruising might look like when it returns.
But one question remains unanswered: Will the buffet, a beloved part of the cruise experience, return?
The answer varies by cruise line. In many cases, the buffet is still going to be a dining option – but it will be different. In other words, it will no longer be a free-for-all where you grab what you want yourself.
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Royal Caribbean lines: Look but don't touch
Royal Caribbean and its sister lines, which include Celebrity Cruises, Silversea and Azamara, plan to offer cruisers a modified buffet.
"We think we can provide the same experience without the risk of contagion," Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, told USA TODAY.
Mark Tamis, the senior vice president of hotel operations for Royal Caribbean International, Royal Caribbean Group's flagship line, explained that the buffet will no longer be self-service.
"Now our crew will do that service piece," Tamis told USA TODAY. Passengers will walk to the buffet, request the item they want and a server will plate it for them. Diners are still allowed to return as many times as they like,
All Royal Caribbean Group lines will also implement changes to their dining rooms. They will require masks except while eating, implement social distancing in seating and standing areas, and increase sanitation.
It's also going to cap the number of passengers allowed in the dining room itself at one time.
"We’re going to have food and beverage team members at exits and entrances making sure that we don’t exceed that 50%," said Cornelius Gallagher, a Michelin-starred chef and vice president of food and beverage for Celebrity Cruises.
"They’re having that (buffet) experience in a very safe environment," Tamis said.
But regardless of the buffet experience, the cruise company believes that what makes cruising so appealing is the amount of dining options onboard.
"I think what’s special about the cruise is the panoply of choices you have," Fain said. "We want to appeal to whatever you want: if you want a formal seating and sit-down dining, we have that. If you want informal and a buffet, we have that."
Norwegian: Buffets may return but not immediately
Andrea DeMarco, spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., told USA TODAY the company is still evaluating the dining experience for its lines, which include Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. She said their priority is to make every aspect of cruising safe for passengers and crew.
"As a result, we expect all self-service dining experiences, including buffets, to be substituted with full-service options upon initial voyage resumption," DeMarco said. "We will continue to evaluate all aspects of our onboard experience as the public health situation evolves."
MSC Cruises: The buffet is open
While MSC's COVID-19 response has prioritized safety, executive vice president and chief operating officer Ken Muskat also noted, "We worked hard to ensure that we are still able to provide our guests with the cruise vacation and experience that they have come to know and love, including when it comes to the popular cruise buffet."
So when MSC Cruises resumed sailing in Europe in mid-August, it kept its buffet open, serving a range of cuisine options from around the world. But, like Royal Caribbean, it has modified its buffet to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"Instead of self service, our staff is on hand to plate and serve food, and for a contactless experience throughout the ship, guests can access restaurant and bar menus from their personal mobile device by scanning a QR code," Muskat told USA TODAY in a statement.
Furthering the contactless experience, all passengers are being provided with an interactive wristband to make touch-free purchases of food and beverages, including at the buffet.
So far, he added, the modifications have made the experience successful.
"Guests are enjoying and respecting the new buffet system, where guests tell the server the food they want and it is plated for them," he said. "Some prefer the new approach and feel it is more efficient."
Carnival: We'll let you know
Because European subsidiaries Costa Cruises and AIDA Cruises have already resumed sailing in Europe, their dining changes are further along than other Carnival Corp.-owned lines, especially those that sail in U.S. waters, such as flagship line Carnival and Holland America. Those lines have yet to finalize their buffet plans.
"Costa Cruises, which restarted cruising on Sept. 6, has converted its self-service, or buffet restaurants, into restaurants that provide full service," Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Carnival Corp., told USA TODAY.
Costa's contactless process allows passengers to choose a table and review their food choices on a menu that is conveniently available on their mobile device using a QR code. Then, a waiter wearing a face mask takes their order and delivers it to the table.
AIDA, which is set to sail again for the first time on Oct. 17, plans to follow the same protocol.
As for the rest of the Carnival Corp. lines, which also include Cunard, Seabourn and P&O Cruises, the buffet remains a question mark. "At this point, we haven't made a determination yet," Frizzell said.
"We plan to leverage the experience and learnings from both Costa Cruises and AIDA, as well as ongoing input from our science and medical experts as part of the process," he continued.
Virgin Voyages: Buffet was never part of our plan
Virgin Voyages' first ship, the Scarlet Lady, has yet to sail with passengers. But when she does, there will not be a buffet on board. And that was the plan all along.
"This was part of the design from the start, which was about creating a more elevated on board experience and has worked in our favor as a result of safety measures for COVID," Michelle Estevam, spokeswoman for Virgin, told USA TODAY.
The cruise line's "Sailor App" offers virtual queuing at all specialty restaurants onboard to avoid any chance of crowding. Estevam said it also allows passengers a contactless way to have food delivered to their cabins.
Is there an industry standard?
Although cruising is set to resume in less than a month, there is still no industry standard or guidance dictating whether or not buffets should be allowed.
When the industry's lead trade group, Cruise Lines International Association, published its list of new requirements for its member lines in late September, it didn't weigh in on the buffet question specifically. It did however, require masks for crew members working around food and beverages.
What does the CDC say?
"CDC guidance calls for cruise ships to eliminate self-service dining," Caitlin Shockey, spokeswoman for the CDC, told USA TODAY.
Served buffets, though, are acceptable by CDC standards as long as social distancing standards can be upheld.
"We still are learning about the virus, and fomites (objects that may carry the virus, such as utensils) may play a role in transmission," she explained. "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes."
Because surfaces are still a risk, the cleaning and disinfection of high touch surfaces is an important practice, as is avoiding the sharing of items, like food.
She said the CDC gave cruise lines the same advice it gave shoreside dining facilities: buffets are a bad idea right now.
"A self-service operation would be considered a high-risk practice as customers touch shared tongs and serving spoons and this could play a role in COVID transmission," Shockey said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ship buffets: Will they return or are they a casualty of COVID?