To Test Covid Protocols, Cruise Lines Turn to Volunteer Guinea Pigs

Since March of last year, cruise ships carrying more than 250 people have been banned from sailing in US waters by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To start over, they have to follow a complex process that in some cases involves simulated cruises designed to test Covid-19 protocols. Hundreds of thousands of frustrated and restless cruise fans have queued as guinea pigs.

Jennifer Juenke is one of them.

“We have had a nightmare since the CDC shut down the cruise industry,” said Ms. Juenke, one of more than 250,000 people who have signed up for a test sail with Royal Caribbean, a major cruise company. “It’s been too long and we’re rarely going to go.”

On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean became the first cruise line to receive CDC approval to operate simulated voyages scheduled for the Freedom of the Seas ship from Port Miami, Florida in late June.

For some of the volunteers, this is an opportunity to support the $ 150 billion industry decimated by the pandemic. For others, it’s a chance to get a feel for what post-pandemic cruises will feel like. But for most of those who have raised their hands, getting back on a boat after more than a year on land is a way to quench their longing.

“The CDC has held us all captive and I really can’t wait any longer, I can’t wait until July,” said Justin Marks, a 59-year-old retired Alabama resident, referring to a target date that had been pending when Ships might start sailing.

Mr Marks, who has booked 12 cruises by 2022, is not deterred by the outbreaks on board cruise lines at the start of the pandemic last year.

“I really want to be selected for the test cruise, mainly because I have to start the cruise again for health reasons,” he said, “but also because I want to show the world how much safer a cruise ship is than any airplane or flight Hotel that was allowed to operate during the entire pandemic. ”

How exactly the cruise ships in the US will go back into service remains unclear. Earlier this month, the CDC announced that cruise lines could skip test trips if they confirm that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of the passengers aboard a cruise are fully vaccinated.

Several major cruise lines announced Alaskan departures back in late July, requiring all passengers to prove they are vaccinated. Florida, the largest cruise ship departure point in the United States, recently passed state law banning companies from requiring proof of vaccination from anyone wishing to use their services.

Florida officials have said they will not gouge the cruise lines. When cruise companies decide to sail with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, they will need to conduct simulation cruises with volunteers to test health and safety protocols.

That has avid cruisers like Mark Zumo, 53, of Baton Rouge, La., Eager to help, even though he said he realizes the test cruises won’t be like the real ones. (He had canceled 20 cruises during the pandemic and has already booked 25 between August and December 2022.)

“A lot of people think it’s going to be a free vacation, but I know it won’t,” he said. “It’s about testing Covid protocols and could mean you will be confined to your room for the entire cruise,” he said.

“But I’m more than ready to do it,” he continued. “If you look at the devastation caused by the shutdown of the cruise industry, it goes this far – from farmers to dock workers to hotels and taxis. I will do everything I can to get things working again. “

The simulated trips must last between two and seven days with at least one overnight stay, according to CDC guidelines. You will need to test embarkation and disembarkation procedures, onboard medical evacuations, activities such as dining and entertainment, recreational activities such as fitness classes, and swimming and shore excursions.

All volunteers will receive a written notice informing them of the risks of participating in health and safety protocols that have not been proven or tested in the United States.

Most simulation cruise volunteers said they were fully vaccinated and had no safety concerns about testing health logs for upcoming trips. More than 66,000 people have joined Royal Caribbean’s “Volunteers of the Seas” Facebook group to express their interest in the initiative. “I feel safer on a cruise ship than in my grocery store,” said Ms. Juenke. “Cruises have restarted in Europe and things are going well.”

MSC, a global cruise line based in Geneva, Switzerland, was the first major cruise line to resume international voyages in Europe that started last August. It has relied on a rigorous testing and contact tracing program to avoid major Covid outbreaks like the one on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan last year, which infected 700 people with the disease and killed 14.

“In the beginning we need to be clear that nobody knew about the virus and its behavior and was transmitted,” said Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises and global chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry trade group .

“We’re so far from this moment in terms of science and technology,” he said.

On MSC European Cruises, all guests will receive antigen tests when they board and if they test positive they will receive an additional PCR test. Unvaccinated guests boarding their UK cruises will also be required to provide evidence of a PCR test performed 48 hours prior to embarkation. Passengers are also tested after three or four days during the cruise and are required to wear contact tracing bracelets so that they can be tracked if someone has come into contact with positive tests.

All passengers who test positive on board are isolated until the ship returns to the port of embarkation or have the option to disembark at the next port of call if they need urgent medical attention. MSC said it had identified a handful of positive cases on board its ships since resuming operations last year, which were treated quickly and effectively, but declined to provide the exact number of cases.

On Monday, four crew members tested positive for Covid-19 on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, en route from Israel to the United States. The ship was not carrying passengers and crew members were immediately isolated before disembarking in Spain, Royal Caribbean said.

Mr. Vago views MSC’s minutes – which are 700 pages long – as a model for the industry. Having recently attended a technical panel discussion between the CDC and cruise industry officials in Washington, he is optimistic that US cruises will start again this summer.

“People are deeply psychologically affected by this pandemic and we know how important and urgent it is for them to get back outside and see a sunset and mingle,” Vago said.

Cristie Nino, of Salinas, Calif., Said she was ready to volunteer for a test cruise after undergoing brain surgery and working night shifts as a surgical technician in a hospital last year.

“I think I would be the perfect person for one of these test cruises because I’m not scared,” she said. “I’ve been on the Covid floor, I’ve seen Covid patients, I’ve been through the hardest part.”

Cruise ships, she said, “have always been a sump for viruses like airplanes, and I believe there were risks at the height of the pandemic, but now with vaccines and health and safety measures, I think they are back to working.”

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