On June 30, 2020, the European Union (EU) released their first EU Healthy Gateways Report, their guide for cruise companies operating in the EU resuming operation. The report was written by a “working group” that represented the Ministries of Health in nine European nations. Many major cruise lines participated in the writing, but it probably went further than many of them imagined.
The first six chapters — which we discussed last week — focused on mandatory testing for guests and crew; quarantine facilities both on the ship and in ports; compulsory notification to port authorities of guests and crew, if COVID-19 infections are suspected. This week, we’ll discuss the structural modifications and changes in onboard activities that the report recommends.
Structural changes after a ship is in the water are expensive. In addition to the usual costs of labor and materials, you have the value of all the fares, products, and services that must be foregone while the ship is being modified. On a medium-sized ship with 3,000 passengers, where the average revenue generated on a one-week cruise is about $4,000 a person, that comes out to about $12 million a week in forgone revenue. So, if the ship must spend six weeks in the yard getting upgrades to the ship’s HVAC systems, generators, staterooms, crew accommodations, dining areas, and kitchens, the cost will be $72 million in lost revenue… in addition to what’s spent on the projects themselves. Since the ships are out of service, due to the pandemic, now is the ideal time to undertake these projects if they can be done safety.
Changes in Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning Systems (HVAC)
The new EU recommendations call for:
The ventilation of all occupied spaces of the ship should operate continuously; the ventilation rate should be such as to provide as much outside air as possible. The use of timers or CO2 detectors that control the ventilation rate should be avoided. The air changes per hour should be further increased in order to reduce the risk of transmission. Exhaust fans of bathrooms should be functional and operate continuously.
All of the air handling units (AHUs) should be switched from recirculation to 100% outside air whenever possible. In case it is not possible to completely stop the recirculation of the air, the ship should explore improving air filtration as much as possible and using HEPA filters or Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI).
This is difficult to do, even on ships that have many verandahs and “ocean view” staterooms, since these rooms also rely on forced-air systems to provide 24-hours-a-day ventilation.
But, what happens on ships with many inside guest cabins and crew cabins that never get 100% fresh air from outside the ship? Many of these ships (more than a dozen from Carnival alone) have already been sold off to second-tier cruise lines or are on their way to “boneyards” in Turkey, Bangladesh, or India – where they will be picked apart and never sail again. For others, the answer will be to cut back sharply on the number of guests and moving more crew to cabins with windows, but this reduces the revenue profile for these ships considerably.
The ship’s improved ventilation systems may be one of its selling points. Even if you book a balcony, it does you no good if the crew members who clean your room and deliver your food (and guests who have booked inside cabins at bargain prices) end up infecting you.
I would anticipate that by 2021, the rates ship owners pay for insurance and the amounts guests pay for travel insurance will be affected by the improvements that have been made on the ships. Some marketing genius will come up with a certification for cruise ships that are 100% COMPLIANT WITH MAJOR EU REQUIREMENTS and advertise this widely.
Huge ornate dining rooms with the Captain’s Table serving a dozen strangers, along with the ship’s officers and the doctor, may compete with buffets in vanishing from the cruising scene. Similarly, the brigade of cooks sweating elbow-to-elbow in the galley may also be a thing of the past. The main dining room may be divided into several specialty restaurants, each with its own small kitchen and prep areas. Likewise, the Grand Buffet with thousands of offerings may be replaced with dozens of “pop-ups,” each serving a different kind of food and encouraging guests to take their food out on the deck.
Staterooms for guests will probably open directly to the outside and have HVAC systems in which the blowers always run, and HEPA systems that filter viruses even smaller than the coronavirus. There will be no sales brochures, menus, or flyers that are passed from one guest to another, nor collections of glassware that must be cleaned after each use. Families may be clustered together with adjoining rooms to cut down on traffic in the hallways. Cameras may be placed in hallways and other public areas to permit contact tracing to be supported by image recognition.
The living areas for crew members may not be much different than a guest’s, except for being not as spacious or well-appointed. Some specialty dining areas will be reserved for crew, but they will be as sanitary and COVID-compliant as the one’s guest will use. If there’s anything the first round of COVID-19 taught us, it’s that the virus spreads as quickly among the crew as guests.
LIFE ONBOARD COVID-COMPLIANT SHIPS
It’s said that “Well-crafted compromises upset everyone.” Such is the case with this EU report. Not only will many cruise lines be discomforted by the costs and risks of some recommendations, but hardcore cruisers will be upset by others that conflict with beloved cruise traditions. The 2021 cruise ships will have only a passing resemblance to the Love Boat.
Protecting Vulnerable Groups
According to the EU Report, a vulnerable group is anyone who is 65 or over, or anyone with debilitating conditions such as diabetes, obesity, respiratory illnesses or cancer who are more likely to contract COVID-19. According to the EU Report, these guests should be housed in the same areas of the ship, eat at the same time, go off the ship in the same groups, and be served by the same crew members.
This may work on some larger ships, but on the small luxury ships with fewer than 1300 guests, the high-risk groups are likely to include nearly all of the guests. Is it the younger guests who must be segregated? Also, what about multigenerational family groups? Separating the older guests, who probably paid for everyone, will be a deal-killer. I think this recommendation needs a bit more thought.
Health Monitoring and Laboratory Testing
In the month since the EU report was written, Quick Tests and “pooling” have come on the scene. Quick Tests are easier to administer, and results can be obtained in 15-30 minutes. This makes them feasible to administer before guests and crew members come onboard. It’s also feasible to administer them outside airports and ship terminals for a modest cost.
“Pooling of samples” has now been endorsed. When most persons are expected to test Negative, samples of fluids from five or more persons can be mixed together and tested with a single testing kit. If the sample tests Positive, individual tests are administered to everyone in that “pool.” This can reduce testing costs by more than 50% and speed up processing as well. Expect to see “batch testing” frequently used on ships, after guests and crew have been on the ship for 5-7 days, and then on a spot check basis after that. You can also anticipate that some ports will require Quick Tests before anyone is permitted ashore.
In addition to the expected safeguards relating to masks and social distancing, gyms will be expected to have crew members wipe down all machines after every use. They also will be required to have a record of everyone who uses a machine by time and date. This will facilitate contact tracing, if it becomes necessary.
Swimming Pools & Hot Tubs
The report says the operation of indoor swimming pools is not recommended. Those that can be opened into outdoor areas, by retracting the roof, can be permitted. Outdoor pools are permitted, providing that people shower before and after entering them, and social distancing is observed. It’s also recommended that small hot tubs should be used by one family or group at a time.
Passengers should be advised to avoid using elevators, and their capacities should be reduced to permit social distancing. Masks must be worn in them.
Business Centers & Guest Computer Centers
The report recommends that the use of business centers with self-service equipment should be suspended. Access to wi-fi terminals around the ship should be replaced with people accessing them remotely with their own phone or PC.
Public toilet use should be managed to avoid overcrowding. The report also says guests should be advised to flush the toilets with the lid closed to prevent the possible transmission of aerosolized waste.
Shore-Based Activities and Excursions
The report recommends that vendors providing shore-based activities observe the same precautions as on the ship. Going beyond this, MSC will only permit guests on excursions managed by them. Under the MSC programs, guests will not be able to explore ports on their own, but some “free excursions” will be built into the cruise fares.
The officer in charge of the ship MUST “immediately inform” the competent authority at the next port of call about any possible case of COVID-19. The ship may be asked to proceed to another port in close proximity, if diagnostic and quarantine requirements cannot be met. This must be done “as quickly as possible.” These words prohibit the delays and prevarications that hindered the dissemination of information during the first part of the pandemic.
I think this report is a groundbreaking work. It will guide the expenditure of millions of dollars the cruise lines are investing to make their ships safer and more comfortable. Until the United States produces a report that’s similar in specificity and scope, we should subscribe to the report’s recommendations as if they were our own.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have sailed on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships on more than 40 cruises. Steve’s company, Cruises & Cameras, LLC, partners with LUXE Travel, a FROSCH Company, and the Signature Travel Network. Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he’s earned two certificates in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s using what he has learned in six courses, along with his earlier training in measurement and statistics, to help his clients deal with the realities of the pandemic. His most recent book is How to Plan Your Next and BEST Cruise (Amazon, 2019, 186 pages). His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.