Two of the world's largest cruise companies—normally, friendly but fierce competitors—are teaming up for a new health/safety initiative. It's a sign of the new "norm" in a pandemic era. On Monday, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. announced they would collaborate to develop enhanced cruise health and safety standards in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The companies have asked former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, who was former president George W. Bush's secretary of health and human services, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to serve as co-chairs of a newly formed group of experts called the “Healthy Sail Panel.”
In press releases issued by both companies, the two major cruise companies said "the panel is tasked with collaboratively developing recommendations for cruise lines to advance their public health response to COVID-19, improve safety, and achieve readiness for the safe resumption of operations."
The blue-ribbon panel of internationally known experts has been at work for nearly a month and initial recommendations are expected by the end of August. Work will be “open source,” so the group's scientific and medical insights could be adopted by any company or industry.
Royal Caribbean International's Symphony of the Seas - Photo by Susan J. Young
“This unprecedented disease requires us to develop unprecedented standards in health and safety,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group. “Bringing aboard these respected experts to guide us forward demonstrates our commitment to protecting our guests, our crews and the communities we visit.”
Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, added, “We compete for the vacationing consumer’s business every day, but we never compete on health and safety standards. While the cruise industry has always had rigorous health standards, the unique challenges posed by COVID-19 provide an opportunity to raise the bar even higher.”
Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said, "Health and safety are the highest priority for all CLIA cruise line members as demonstrated by this initiative on the part of two of our largest members. We commend this and parallel efforts of all of our members, large and small, who are working tirelessly to develop appropriate protocols based on input from health authorities and medical experts in the U.S. and abroad."
Fain and Del Rio said they initiated the panel to assure the plans they will submit to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other regulators apply the best available public health, science and engineering insights. The work of the panel will be shared with the entire industry and regulators.
Addressing the CDC's "No Sail" Order
“In convening the 'Healthy Sail Panel,' we sought the participation of a diverse group of leading experts in areas of science and public health that are directly relevant to the considerations listed by the [CDC's] 'No Sail' Order,” said Leavitt. “We view our work as a profoundly important public health effort. The health and safety of passengers, crew, and the communities that cruise ships visit will be the principal focus of this project.”
Dr. Gottlieb said the panel members know that "public health issues that must be addressed are complex and in some areas, tackling them will require novel approaches." He added that the goal in assembling the team was to develop best practices that can improve safety and provide a roadmap for reducing the risks of COVID-19. The panel’s members are globally recognized experts from various disciplines, including public health, infectious disease, biosecurity, hospitality and maritime operations.
In addition to the panel's co-chairs, Leavitt and Gottleib, other panel members are:
- Helene Gayle, M.D., MPH, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and former president and CEO of Care. An expert on global development, humanitarian and health issues, Dr. Gayle spent 20 years with the CDC, working primarily on HIV/AIDS.
- Julie Gerberding, M.D., MPH, executive vice president and chief patent officer for Merck, and former CDC director (2002 to 2009). Previously, Dr. Gerberding was a tenured faculty member in infectious diseases at the University of California at San Francisco.
- Steven Hinrichs, M.D., professor and chair in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and 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. He's an international leader on the world's preparedness for pandemics, and has led investigations into many disease outbreaks including hepatitis B in health care settings and HIV infection in healthcare workers.
- Stephen Ostroff, M.D. was the FDA's acting commissioner (2015-2016) and previously the FDA's chief scientist. He was also formerly the CDC's deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases. While at the CDC he focused on emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and coordination of complex outbreak response.
- William Rutala, Ph.D, M.S., MPH has experience medically managing a variety of diseases and extensive experience studying epidemiology and virology, particularly managing outbreaks and emerging pathogens. Dr. Rutala's research specialties are the etiology and prevention of healthcare-associated infections with a special focus on disinfection and sterilization of reusable medical and surgical devices.
- Kate Walsh, Ph.D, dean at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and E.M. Statler Professor. A professor of management, she is a leader in education for the global hospitality industry; and a renowned expert in organizational service design, leadership and career development.
Cruise line operational experts on the panel include Captain Patrik Dahlgren, senior vice president of global marine operations and fleet optimization for all Royal Caribbean Group global brands and Robin Lindsay, executive vice president of vessel operations for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.