MSC Makes History With Return to Cruising; All Passengers Tested Before Boarding

Cruising history was made yesterday when the MSC Grandiosa became the first ship from its fleet to return to service since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ship launched on a 7-night cruise from Genoa, Italy — heading to Civitavecchia (Rome), Naples, Palermo, and Valetta.

MSC Grandiosa in Genoa, Italy
MSC Grandiosa in Genoa, Italy. Image courtesy of MSC.

In a world that’s been turned upside down by the pandemic, the return of the Grandiosa marks the beginning of a return to normal. Cruise lines around the world cancelled sailings back in March as the pandemic took hold. And while many places are still closed to cruising as they battle the virus, other are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

However, the return to sailing is anything but normal.

Already some smaller ships have sailed and reported possible cases of COVID on board, leading to more headaches for the industry. With the MSC Grandiosa, the cruise line has implemented a number of new safety protocols that were unimaginable at the start of the year.

New Safety Protocols Include Testing Before Boarding

Like many cruise lines, MSC developed entirely new procedures for life on the ship to minimize the risk of ill passengers.

Specifically, during the boarding process, passengers are now assigned time slots (staggered boarding) instead of having large groups arrive all at once. There is also enhanced screening, including temperature checks and a health questionnaire. But perhaps most significant is that all passengers receive a COVID-19 swab test.

Guests then get the results in the terminal before they are allowed to board the ship. Anyone who tests positive or has symptoms of illness (including a high temperature) is denied boarding. The cruise line is using “antigen” test for most passengers, but those coming from countries deemed “high risk” must take “RT-PCR” test within three days before boarding.

Having to take a COVID test before boarding, however, is just one way that the return to sailing aboard the MSC Grandiosa is very different.

In addition, there is also more sanitation and cleaning. The ship is also reduced to 70% capacity to allow more space for social distancing. There is also ongoing monitoring of guest health on the ship. Passengers will have their temperature checked daily when they return from port or at spots around the ship.

On the ship, passengers will also have “MSC for Me” wristbands. Instead of a traditional card that has to be swiped and handed back and forth between passenger and crew, the wristband provides contactless payment and opening of cabin doors.

Perhaps most extreme in the eyes of some is that passengers are “asked” to wear face masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The cruise line mentioned wearing face masks in elevators and it is providing masks each day in staterooms and at spots around the ship.

The new changes don’t stop once passengers are off the ship, either. For now, MSC is only allowing guests to go into port if they are on an excursion organized by the cruise line. The reasoning is that they can ensure safety and health standards are met even when off the ship. This includes, for example, transfer rides being sanitized, proper distancing, and shoreside operators undergoing health screens of their own.

“The new procedures include universal COVID-19 testing for all guests and crew prior to embarkation, protected ashore visits at each destination only with an MSC Cruises’ excursion as an added level of protection for our guests and the introduction of a COVID Protection Plan for further peace of mind for our guests, ” said Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC’s Executive Chairman. “With all of these measures in place, we aim to offer our guests the safest possible vacation.”

An Entire Industry Is Watching

There is no doubt that the entire industry — including other cruise lines and passengers — are eagerly watching the sailing of the MSC Grandiosa.

What the industry has gone through in the past six months is unprecedented. There is no clear roadmap on how to return to sailing, either. While many cruise lines announced protocols similar to one another, what’s not yet known is if those new policies will actually keep passengers healthy.

In addition, no one knows how passengers will respond to the new experience. While recent surveys show that passengers are eager to cruise, if the experience is drastically altered, will they be turned off of sailing? That has yet to be answered.

What this return to sailing should do is help MSC smooth out any wrinkles as it returns.

There will no doubt going be some hiccups that can only be solved by working through the process of having passengers on board. Being able to start back early may cause some negative headlines if anything goes wrong, but there is no doubt that the cruise line will gain invaluable experience in how to operate the ship in this new environment.

Should the cruise line be able to return and keep passengers healthy, it will also provide a valuable roadmap for the industry as a whole.

Are Cruises From the United States Next?

What we don’t yet know is when cruising will return to the United States. While the CDC’s current “No Sail” order extends through September, cruise lines have voluntarily extended their suspensions until the end of October (although with some room to return earlier if the situation improves). Some lines have even later return dates planned.

The good news is that new cases look to be on the decline, but it could take months for the United States to see cases as low as they are in much of Europe. For example, the 7-day average number of new cases in the U.S. is currently around 52,000. In Italy, where the Grandiosa is sailing, the average is less than 500 cases a day.

Adjusting for the population of the United States — which has about 5.5 times more people — the U.S. would need to see new cases of only 2,600 to be on par with Italy’s level. That’s about 5% of the number of cases currently seen on a daily basis.

In other words, it could be some time before the U.S. is at a level where it can allow cruise ships to sail again.

There is little doubt, however, that if cruising can return safely aboard the MSC Grandiosa, it will go a long way in convincing the public and government officials that sailing can be done safely.

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