At a press briefing, Gianni Onorato, CEO, MSC Cruises, laid out the details of the company’s comprehensive health and safety protocol, developed as the line plans to restart operations in the Mediterranean region.
While awaiting necessary final approvals, MSC Cruises expects to restart with two ships, MSC Grandiosa and MSC Magnifica in the western and eastern Mediterranean, respectively. Onorato said total guest occupancy will be limited to 70 percent. In the ship's theater, occupancy will be only 50 percent.
"We are ready to go," said Onorato, noting that the company had worked hard to make that a possibility "for our crew, our employees, our guests." He said the cruise line would like to start service on August 15, but is still awaiting approval from Italian authorities.
Departure dates will be determined in accordance with the guidelines received by those authorities. The itineraries that are planned include Greece and Malta where the authorities have reopened ports to cruising and approved the line's health and safety protocols.
For this initial phase of the restart, only guests who are residents of Schengen countries will be accepted onboard. No guests from the U.S. or elsewhere will be accepted.
Preparing to Sail
Highlights for guests considering sailing this month or in the future include:
- MSC Cruises said it has worked closely with authorities in the countries where the company’s ships will call to develop its new, comprehensive protocols.
- A dedicated task force, with the input and support of leading external medical experts, has developed that protocol. New MSC Cruises’ operating procedures go beyond regional and national guidelines.
- The new procedures include Universal COVID-19 testing for all guests and crew prior to embarkation; use of only MSC shore excursions at local ports; and the introduction of "MSC COVID Protection Plan," an insurance policy for guests.
- RINA the independent maritime certification corporation, has verified that the protocol meets the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) guidance, which incorporates additional health standards including those from the E.U. Healthy Gateways Joint Action.
Restart in the Mediterranean
Mediterranean itineraries have been designed according to the accessibility of the ports, reducing the need for guests to make use of public transport or flights (wherever possible). They've also been planned in conjunction with governmental authorities.
MSC Cruises said that guests residing in countries who are unable to sail on the summer Mediterranean cruises will be contacted by the line with options.
In the U.S., MSC Cruises said its ships will only return to service once the necessary approvals have been received from the relevant local and national authorities, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as across regions where the ships will operate.
MSC Cruises has set up a cross-functional task force comprising in-house experts in medical services, public health and sanitation, hotel services, HVAC and other shipboard engineering services, information technology and logistics.
Aspen Medical and Expert Group
The line has hired global healthcare provider Aspen Medical to further assist with the development of the protocol and operating procedures.
In addition, MSC Cruises has established a "blue-ribbon" COVID Expert Group, bringing together the following highly qualified and internationally respected experts in the fields of medicine, public health and/or related scientific disciplines:
- Christakis Hajichristodoulou, professor of hygiene and epidemiology at the Faculty of Medicine, as well as its vice president, School of Health Sciences, University of Thessaly, Greece
- Stephan J. Harbarth, hospital epidemiologist, infectious diseases specialist and head of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the Geneva University Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine
- Dr. Ian Norton, a specialist emergency physician with post graduate qualifications in surgery, international health and tropical medicine, currently managing director of Respond Global, formerly the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Medical Team Initiative program until January 2020.
In its press release, the cruise line said the new operating protocol is based on new data and research, as well as an improved understanding of the virus and how it behaves, plus taking advantage of the latest technology in screening and protecting people from possible contagion.
New MSC Protocols
Among the many steps that MSC Cruises will take are these:
- Universal health screening will be required for all guests prior to embarkation. "The reaction has been extremely positive because people will feel much safer," said Onofrio.
- This Universal health screening will comprise a temperature check, a health questionnaire and a COVID-19 swab test.
- Depending on the screening results and according to the guest’s medical or travel history, a secondary health screening or testing will take place.
- Any guest who tests positive, displays symptoms or a temperature will be denied boarding.
- Following guidelines from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, guests traveling from countries categorized as high risk will be required to take a molecular RT-PCR test, to be done within 72 hours prior to joining the ship.
- All crew members will be tested for COVID-19 prior to embarkation as well as regularly during their contract.
- A redesigned embarkation procedure with digital check-in processes will make the process more seamless and contact-free. Arrival time slots will help manage guest flow.
In addition, elevated sanitation and cleaning measures will be supported by the introduction of new cleaning methods, the use of hospital-grade disinfectant products and the sanitation of onboard air with UV-C light technology that kills 99.97 percent of microbes.
Social distancing will be enabled through the reduction of the overall capacity of guests on board, allowing for more space for guests, approximately 108 square feet per person, based on 70 percent overall capacity. Venue capacity will be reduced, activities will be modified to allow for smaller groups and guests will be able to pre-book services and activities to manage guest numbers. When social distancing is not possible, guests will be asked to wear a face mask -- such as in elevators. Face masks will be provided daily to guests in their staterooms and will be available around the ship.
The MSC ships will also have enhanced medical facilities and services, highly qualified, trained staff and equipment to test, evaluate and treat those suspected of having COVID-19.
Guests who have symptoms of the virus will receive free treatment at the onboard medical center. Dedicated isolation staterooms will be available to enable isolation of any suspected cases and close contacts.
Ongoing health monitoring will also be conducted throughout the cruise. Guests and crew will have their temperature checked daily either when they return from ashore or at dedicated stations around the ship to monitor the health status of every guest and crew member.
During this initial phase of operations, guests will only go ashore as part of an organized MSC Cruises’ excursion, which will have the same standards of health and safety as what the line provides onboard.
"We will ensure that transfers are properly sanitized and that there is adequate space," the line's press release said. Tour guides and drivers will also undergo health screening and will wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
A contingency response plan will be activated if a suspected case is identified, in close cooperation with the national health authorities. The suspected case and close contacts will follow isolation measures and may be disembarked, according to local and national regulations.
MSC COVID-19 Protection Plan
MSC Cruises has introduced a new "MSC COVID-19 Protection Plan" to provide guests with additional peace of mind for the summer cruises. This will cover the guest if they become infected prior to their departure if they are not able to travel, during the cruise for medical expenses and after the cruise if the guest falls sick.
The MSC COVID-19 Protection Plan is currently available only to guests from Schengen countries. In addition to this, guests should also choose their usual travel and health insurance coverage.
Other Key Processes
Should guests worry they'll be put in a 14-day quarantine (as a group) even with only one case of COVID-19 onboard? "Definitely, not," said Onorato, citing three key processes that the line is doing for every port.
First, MSC is implementing enhanced universal testing and will have a shoreside lab service with biologists available in all ports. Second, it's made arrangements for nurse associates to provide swab testing at terminals. Third, it has agreements with COVID-19 facilities in all ports on the itineraries. So, sick guests would be taken off the ship if they need to be hospitalized or isolated shore-side. For any guests who would test positive but have no symptoms, the line's new insurance policy would allow them to be sent home in a safe, secure manner without risking the health of others.
Technology to Assist
For guests onboard, the MSC for Me app will support and facilitate the new health and safety measures. The app can be used to book services as well as to manage their daily activities on board and source information.
Additionally, on board MSC Grandiosa every guest and crew member will be provided with a complimentary MSC for Me wristband, which facilitates contactless transactions around the ship as well as providing contact and proximity tracing.
A new Information Center, accessible by telephone, will allow guests to call guest services for information, rather than having to go to the desk in person.
The Onboard Experience
Onboard activities and entertainment have been redesigned to enable smaller group sizes and guests should book in advance. The program of activities will include everything from themed events to fun games, talent shows, fitness, dance and more.
Children's activities and family live game shows will be available each day. New spaces onboard will be reserved for children and teenagers as the youth areas will operate at a reduced capacity. Parents taking an excursion can still leave children with the youth staff by making a reservation one day in advance. Lunch and dinner with the youth staff will still take place along with the most popular kids’ activities such as MSC Dance Crew, Cabin 12006 family game show and web series and the LEGO experience.
Wide choice of live entertainment will continued to be offered around the ship, with reduced capacity in the theater. The schedule for shows will be adapted as fewer guests will be accommodated in the theater at the same time.
Restaurants, bars and lounges, will allow for social distancing and all meals and drinks will be served to guests at their table. The buffet restaurant will offer a new service concept and a new guest flow to ensure social distancing.
Instead of buffet self-service, the guests will select what they want and the food will be plated and handed to them to take back to their table. For a contact-less experience, guests will be able to access restaurant and bar menus from their personal mobile device by scanning a QR code.