It's not news that cruising will be different when ships return to U.S. waters as cruise operators seek to ensure passengers' safety. The question of what a cruise vacation will look like in the COVID-19 era has lingered during a more than six-month industrywide pause.
But a picture is starting to form.
Monday, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian's "Healthy Sail Panel" submitted a 65-page report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the agency's request for public comment. The CDC's comment period closes Monday, and its "no-sail" order is set to expire at the end of the month. The Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group, issued a voluntary suspension through Oct. 31.
The panel's report contains 74 recommendations to prevent the introduction and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on cruise ships, including testing, face coverings and temperature checks. The recommendations were published on each cruise company's website.
"This is a very comprehensive approach with multiple layers to try to ensure safety on the ship," Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who co-chairs the panel, told USA TODAY.
The two cruise companies brought together a task force in June led by Gottlieb and co-chair Mike Leavitt, former Utah governor and U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, with the goal of evaluating every facet of COVID-19 safety on cruise ships.
"These recommendations constitute an important milestone," Leavitt told USA TODAY, noting that protocol details would be worked out by each cruise company and that the CDC will ultimately decide appropriate guidelines when cruising resumes.
The recommendations for safe cruising begin before passengers and crew embark, and they include contingency plans in case of a coronavirus outbreak on board.
Among the recommendations:
Passengers should be tested for COVID-19 five days to 24 hours before boarding and share a negative result with the cruise operator.
At embarkation, passengers should undergo an additional health screening.
Crew members should be tested five days to 24 hours before leaving their home. After receiving a negative result, they should quarantine on board for seven days and take another test before beginning duties with a negative result.
Passengers and crew should undergo a daily temperature check.
Passengers and crew should wear a face mask or cloth covering in accordance with CDC guidelines.
Ships should have lowered crew and passenger loads.
Cruise lines should implement shorter sailing itineraries.
Cruise operators should implement contact-free check-in.
Increased sanitation on board and in ports should be implemented with attention paid to both low-touch and high-touch areas.
The list goes on.
"We believe you can create a bubble around this experience, where you put in place enough controls that you dramatically reduce the risk of introduction, and if you do have a single introduction, dramatically reduce further spread on the ship," Gottlieb said. "We have an environment that we can tightly control."
Cruise operators can control conditions of boarding and onboard interactions, Gottlieb noted. "This isn’t like someone going into a large city where you lose control of your environment."
Having that control would require enforcing new rules. "Cruise operators should not allow an individual to sail if they do not affirmatively state their willingness to comply with current safety and public health protocols," recommendation No. 8 reads.
There are milestones to hit before cruising from the USA can resume, such as the CDC approving cruise lines' plans.
Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, and Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, told USA TODAY that the two companies will use the recommendations to help them develop operating protocols, and cruise lines will turn in detailed plans to the CDC for approval.
At this stage, the recommendations are being submitted to the CDC for consideration on the return to cruising in U.S. waters – not for approval to implement.
When final protocols can be put in place and implemented remains unclear. Del Rio said it's more complicated than when the CDC's "no-sail" order is lifted.
"It will take some time, and a lot depends on when we get the green light – how much advance notice there is and the extent of the technologies that we need to start," Del Rio said, referring to COVID-19 testing, getting crew back on board and training them to adapt to new protocols, among other factors.
"Testing, for example, is something that’s key," he said. "And those products are in limited quantities."
Fain reiterated a point he's made throughout the pandemic: Royal Caribbean lines will not return to cruising until it's proved safe to do so.
"My family and I, my grandchildren, my children, my wife, we will be on our first cruise," Del Rio said. "We will be that confident. I love my family as much as anybody loves their family, and that will be the proof of the pudding."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Norwegian, Royal Caribbean cruise panel suggests COVID-19 rules