Just a day after the CDC finally provided updated guidance on the next steps to return to cruising, one of the three largest cruise companies has taken a bigger step. In a letter to CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky, Frank Del Rio (CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings) outlines the steps the COVID-19 safety measures the company’s three lines have taken, and explains how they plan to sail from the US starting in early July.
Highlights from the Letter
The cordial letter acknowledges the hard work of the CDC, and their continued cooperation with the cruise industry. It focuses, however, on the efforts that the company has made to ensure the safe return of cruising. In addition to mentioning the hospital-grade HVAC filtration systems, enhanced onboard medical facilities, and cutting-edge contact tracing technologies, there are five main points that are outlined. We’ve summarized them below - and yes, vaccines will be required for all.
- All guests will provide proof that they were vaccinated at least two weeks prior to sailing.
- All crew will be vaccinated at least two weeks before commencing their duties onboard.
- NCLH will operationalize the protocols developed by the Healthy Sail Panel (“HSP”) (led by former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt and former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. Scott Gottlieb). These include universal testing of guests and crew and required vaccinations, “thereby creating a safe, “bubble-like” environment.”
- On or about July 4th 2021, NCLH will resume cruising from US ports with three ships, each at a reduced capacity of 60%, and increasing each ship's capacity by 20% every 30 days.
- Stringent requirements will remain in place until public health conditions allow for the implementation of more lenient protocols.
The letter, to be clear, is Mr Del Rio requesting the CDC to allow them to sail - but it sounds a lot more like them informing the agency of their plans. It does mention continuing to work with the CDC, but the letter seems to request an approval to sail, and not additional guidelines to follow before being permitted to do so.
This is an interesting technique. The CDC might capitulate, acknowledging that the combination of protocols, shipboard enhancements, and vaccination requirements eclipse the CDC requirements; however, they'd seem less likely to simply approve Mr Del Rio's request than to engage in further discussions. Whether that discussion involves meetings and tweaks to the plan, or a court battle, may be the big question.
What we don’t expect is the cruise company to abandon this plan without a fight. In the past month or two, they’ve moved considerable numbers of crew members around, seemingly preparing to sail. They even stopped selling cruises before September as they redeploy their fleet subsequent to cancellation of the Alaska cruise season. This is a lot of work and expense that leads us to believe this is an action plan, not posturing to placate creditors expecting cash flow by the summer, or a PR stunt to get the public to apply more pressure to the CDC.
Of course, regardless of how this plays out, the past weeks have been full of movement in getting closer to a safe resumption of cruising, and it seems clear that NCLH intends to be aggressive about that restart for their lines: Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
The Full Letter
Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky
Director, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30329-4027
Re: Our plan to join America’s national opening this summer
Dear Dr. Walensky:
In the ongoing spirit of cooperation between Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (“NCLH”) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), and out of deference and respect for the career CDC scientists working tirelessly on behalf of all Americans, I write to advise you that NCLH has developed a comprehensive and robust science-backed plan that should become the model for how the travel and hospitality industry operates in a COVID-19 environment and which will be mutually beneficial for the public health mission that you and your agency are dedicated to serving and to NCLH’s various constituencies.
As you know, NCLH is the parent company of three cruise brands, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. On March 13, 2020, prior to the CDC issuing its first No Sail Order, NCLH suspended all cruise operations across our three brands worldwide in an effort to do our part as a responsible corporate citizen to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nearly 13 months later, we believe, that in light of the current health trends, buttressed by the more than 650 million vaccines administered worldwide to date, it is time for NCLH to join the rest of the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors in participating in this next phase of our recovery.
We congratulate you and the CDC on the important steps taken to further facilitate safe travel for vaccinated Americans, as announced on April 2, 2021. NCLH shares your view that vaccinations are the primary vehicle for Americans to get back to their everyday lives while containing the spread of the virus. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that our resumption of operations is guided by science and prioritizes the health and safety of our passengers, crew and the communities we visit. Most importantly, because our return to service plan mandates that the entire population onboard our vessels be vaccinated, our plan reduces the risk of outbreaks and severe COVID-19 cases. Accordingly, we will not require federal, state or local governments to incur time and/or resources in providing medical assistance to our brands’ guests as we have invested tens of millions of dollars in enhanced onboard health and safety protocols, including, but not limited to, enhanced hospital grade air filtration systems, cutting-edge contact tracing technology and significantly upgraded ICU and quarantine medical facilities. Our vessels are well equipped to handle the one-off case of infection that could occur, and our procedures are well detailed and resourced to treat, address and otherwise handle any isolated case onboard. With these as our guiding principles, we are pleased to outline our plan to safely resume cruising:
NCLH will require that all guests embarking from a U.S. port and/or disembarking to a U.S. port provide proof of having been fully vaccinated with an FDA-, EMA-, or WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccine no less than two weeks prior to their departure date;
All crew on NCLH vessels will be fully vaccinated with an FDA-, EMA- or WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccine at least two weeks prior to commencement of their duties onboard their assigned vessel;
NCLH will also incorporate and operationalize the protocols developed by the Healthy Sail Panel (“HSP”), led by former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt and former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. Scott Gottlieb. These protocols, include universal testing of guests and crew, combined with required vaccines for all guests and crew, thereby creating a safe, “bubble-like” environment; and
On or about July 4, 2021, NCLH vessels will begin cruise operations at an initial reduced capacity of 60%, gradually ramping up our fleet departing from U.S. ports and increasing capacity by 20% every 30 days.
These stringent requirements will remain in place until public health conditions allow for the implementation of more lenient protocols.
We have published the complete SailSAFE health and safety program on our website and attach a copy to this letter.
By requiring full and complete vaccinations of guests and crew, we believe our extensive health and safety standards share in the spirit and exceed the intent of the CDC’s existing Conditional Sailing Order (“CSO”) to advance public health goals and to protect guests, crew and the communities we visit. Therefore, we respectfully request the CDC lift the CSO for all NCLH cruise vessels departing from U.S. ports effective July 4, 2021.
We trust that you will agree that our protocols extend well beyond the protocols of other travel, leisure and hospitality sectors, all of which have already reopened, including hotels and resorts, casinos, restaurants, sporting venues, theme parks and airlines. We believe that a cruise ship with a fully vaccinated population when combined with the virus protection defenses provided by the HSP protocols is one of the safest vacation options available.
With vaccine mandates and strict health and safety protocols in place, we are confident of our ability to provide a uniquely safe and healthy vacation environment. These mitigation protocols will minimize, to the greatest extent possible, further infection and spread of COVID-19. With our vessels back in operation, we will not only reinstate tens of thousands of American jobs and meet the significant American consumer’s demand for cruising, but also re-contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy as the industry resumes cruise operations.
We look forward to continued partnership with the CDC in recommencing operations with 100% vaccinated guests and crew aboard. Independent of the pandemic, our primary responsibility remains the safety and welfare of our guests and crew. Recognizing our shared responsibility to health and safety standards — those which exceed the mandated regulations set for other dining, entertainment, travel and tourism enterprises — we embrace these guidelines and view them as opportunities to strengthen public health measures and restore public confidence in our industry and the broader travel sector as a whole.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Frank Del Rio
President and CEO
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings