Norwegian and Royal Caribbean Launch New 'Healthy Sail Panel' to Make Cruises Safer

The parent companies of Norwegian and Royal Caribbean have teamed up to create an expert panel that will advise them on safely restarting cruises.

Two major cruise companies have combined forces to create a mega-panel of experts — including former Utah Governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt — to craft recommendations about getting ships back to sea safely. And they’ve tipped the CDC to the work, in hopes that a transparent report on what it’ll take to get the cruise industry going again will win over the agency’s regulators.

The CEOs of both Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Royal Caribbean Group, the parent companies of numerous brands including their namesakes, said their working group of hospitality insiders, public health experts, and seafarers will make sailing safer once it resumes.

“We wanted to bring the best of the best together to advise us on how to create a set of really enhanced protocols or procedures that would make us feel safe enough to go back into service,” said Richard D. Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group, in an interview with Travel + Leisure. While major cruise lines often compete, Fain said in the case of health and safety, there was a certain strength in collaborating.

“We have the same objectives,” he said, referring to Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. “We both want to do the very best we can and get the very best set of expertise on this and so we joined forces and then we asked Dr. Gottlieb and Governor Leavitt to put together a panel of the best of the best.”

Among the experts are Secretary Leavitt, who served under President George W. Bush, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pair will serve as co-chairs of the blue-ribbon panel, which aims to release a report on the future of cruising — and share it with other industries. (Find the full list of panelists below.)

“The world is facing a new risk that we haven't before and we're all having to adapt,” said Leavitt. “Regulators have never faced this before, cruise lines haven't, and so our objective, simply stated, is to determine what needs to be done in order to adapt to this new situation so that we can cruise safely.”

Allure of the Seas at the malaga harbor as first stop in europe in Malaga, Spain on April 29, 2015. The largest cruise ship in the world.
Allure of the Seas at the malaga harbor as first stop in europe in Malaga, Spain on April 29, 2015. The largest cruise ship in the world. Getty Images

The working group will face a stiff challenge: Many cruise lines have voluntarily paused their operations and are prohibited from carrying passengers until at least July 24, according to the CDC’s latest “No Sail Order.” (Ships that carry fewer than 250 passengers are permitted to sail — and a few are testing the waters this summer.) While some dedicated cruisers are eager to get back to sea no matter what, the CDC is unequivocal about its advice to travelers: “Cruise passengers are at increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19,” the agency states. “CDC recommends that travelers defer all cruise travel worldwide,” its travel notice reads, as of July 7.

Within that context, the panel convened by Norwegian and Royal Caribbean is already at work, Leavitt said. They’ve broken their project into four broad categories, looking at “exposure reduction,” “environmental operations,” “response contingencies,” and “destination planning,” he said. That covers everything from keeping the novel coronavirus off ships to begin with to reducing its spread as well as reacting to any potential future outbreaks, whether they occur aboard a vessel or on land, in a scheduled port of call.

“We will go through all four of those areas and we will bring to the cruise lines a series of recommendations that we believe will allow them to go to CDC, to the Coast Guard, and other regulators who have interest in this — and the passengers — and say, ‘We're adapting to be able to create an environment that's safe and here's how we're doing it,’” Leavitt said.

“We have notified the CDC of the panel and are giving them a full briefing on how we're approaching it and what we hope to accomplish,” Leavitt continued. “They welcomed the idea of the panel.”

The working group is planning to deliver its findings by the end of August, at which point cruise lines can implement any additional procedures they haven’t already put into place.

“We're confident that the work that the expert panel will conduct — and already has — will be such that it won't be one single silver bullet so to speak that radically changes the way we cruise, the way we operate, and the way we treat our guests,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. “It's going to be layers — and some of the layers won't even be noticed by guests. [They’ll] be behind the scenes, like so much of the work that we already do in the area of health and safety.”

Additional members of the Healthy Sail Panel organized by Norwegian and Royal Caribbean:

  • Helene Gayle M.D., MPH, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust
  • Julie Gerberding, M.D., MPH, executive vice president and chief patient officer for Merck
  • Steven Hinrichs, M.D., professor and chair in the department of pathology and microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, the director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, and director of the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity
  • Michael Osterholm, M.D., Ph.D, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota
  • Stephen Ostroff, M.D., acting commissioner of the FDA, 2015-2016
  • William Rutala, Ph.D, M.S., MPH, director and co-founder of the Statewide Program for Infection Control and Epidemiology and a professor for the division of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine
  • Kate Walsh, Ph.D, dean at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and E.M. Statler professor
  • Captain Patrik Dahlgren, senior vice president of global marine operations and fleet optimization for all Royal Caribbean Group global brands
  • Robin Lindsay, executive vice president of vessel operations for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
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