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By Hannah Sampson July 6, 2020

Two of the world’s largest cruise operators have teamed up to assemble a panel of health experts to help them meet the coronavirus-related requirements of authorities around the world.

Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which include several cruise lines, planned to announce the Healthy Sail Panel on Monday morning.

The combined expertise of the group’s members — including epidemiologists and former leaders of federal agencies — reveals how complex a feat it will be for major cruise lines, which stopped sailing in March, to stage a safe comeback. The timeline shows there are no quick answers: The group started meeting in June and hopes to deliver a plan by the end of August. Major cruise lines that operate in the United States have paused operations until mid- to late September.

“Obviously everybody wants to start, but we’ve made it very clear we won’t start until we and the experts and authorities agree it’s the appropriate thing to do,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group. “And we’ve taken the steps to try and enable ourselves to do that.”

Both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian had been working to bring in expert advisers and decided to join forces, although they are fierce competitors in all other areas.

“We want to make sure that we do everything possible, without exception, without any shortcuts, [to show] that cruising is safe,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. “And we think that the panel is going to help inform us in how to do that.”

Co-chairs of the panel are former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump. Neither is new to cruising; both said they have sailed before.

The group also includes Julie Gerberding, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is now chief patent officer at the pharmaceutical company Merck; Helene Gayle, who spent 20 years at the CDC and is now CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, and other experts in public health, infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, epidemiology, hospitality and cruise operations.

A no-sail order extended by the CDC in April expires July 24; it calls for cruise lines to submit detailed plans to “prevent, mitigate and respond to the spread of covid-19 on board cruise ships.”

Leavitt said the expert group has broken its work into two phases, first finding improvements that cruise lines can use as they craft their responses for the CDC and later looking for innovations that could require more time and research.

“All of the cruise lines have to present plans, and so we want to get information to them as quickly as possible that’s reliable [and] scientifically based so that information can populate the plans that they submit to the CDC — and then we’ll keep working,” he said. “Because obviously this situation is evolving and it will require us to iterate as we go and as science develops, and we see this as not just a short-term commitment but a long-term need.”

A Washington Post analysis in April found the virus infected travelers on 55 ships worldwide and killed at least 65 people, though the full impact is unknown.

In its no-sail order, the CDC says cruise travel “markedly increases the risk and impact of the covid-19 disease outbreak within the United States,” and an agency official has called cruise ships “uniquely vulnerable” to the virus because of tight quarters, communal eating and entertainment and passenger demographics.

Gottlieb said he believes the confined environment comes with risks but could also provide an opportunity to create a protective bubble around passengers and “substantially” reduce their risk of getting sick.

“We can control for all the risk factors,” he said. “And so if the commitment is there to put in place the level of protection — whether it’s testing, [high-efficiency particulate air] filters, mechanisms for social distancing, deep cleanings on the ships, which I believe there is — we feel there’s an opportunity to create a safer environment and a more controlled environment.”

The panel plans to share its findings and recommendations with other cruise lines and the industry as a whole.

“Health and safety is the highest priority for all CLIA cruise line members, as demonstrated by this initiative on the part of two of our largest members,” Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, said in a statement. “We commend the efforts of all of our members, large and small, who are working tirelessly to develop appropriate protocols based on input from health authorities and medical experts in the U.S. and abroad.”

Leavitt said he expects the panel’s work to apply even beyond cruising, considering the various types of venues found on ships.

“Clearly there are circumstances that are unique to the cruise industry in the same way that there would be conditions that are unique to a basketball game or an apartment building or a dorm or a restaurant; they all have unique settings,” he said. “The reason this presents an opportunity is because there are retail stores on a cruise ship, there are restaurants on a cruise ship, there are recreational areas on a cruise ship, there’s a motel on a cruise ship.”

Asked how challenging it had been to watch the panel examine his company’s operations and start to offer feedback, Royal Caribbean’s Fain praised their work and said it had been thrilling to see professionals in action. But he also brought up a recent medical screening he experienced.

“I will say that was more fun,” Fain joked.

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