MSC Cruises has so far — knock on wood! — been operating safely in the Mediterranean. The MSC Grandiosa departed Aug. 30 on its third voyage since the COVID-19 pandemic began. TravelPulse discussed the resumption of operations with Ken Muskat, executive vice president and COO of MSC Cruises USA. Here is an edited transcript.
TravelPulse (TP): Does MSC Grandiosa’s safe cruises thus far prove that cruising can be safe during these times if tough protocols are in place?
Ken Muskat (KM): The completion of MSC Grandiosa’s first two Mediterranean voyages — since the temporary halt of operations in March — as well as her third voyage, which began on Sunday, August 30, has reflected a successful implementation of MSC Cruises’ new and comprehensive health and safety protocol.
A good example of this is the Universal Health Screening of every guest prior to embarkation, including a temperature check, a health questionnaire and a COVID-19 antigen swab test. With this measure, we went above the guidance that was required by key international and regional authorities, and the protocol is doing what it was meant to do.
During the embarkation of the second cruise, a young man tested positive at embarkation (that’s both at the first antigen test as well as the second molecular test). As a result, he and his traveling party (his family) were denied boarding. In addition, so were the other guests — 15 in total, including the young man and his family — who had traveled to Genoa by van together with them.
The restart of MSC Grandiosa has given some proof that cruise ships, with the new protocols in place, can be a protective healthy bubble.
TP: Your guests must explore ports in Italy and Malta only on MSC Cruises-organized shore excursions. Why?
KM: This allows us to ensure that the same high standards of health and safety that are applied on board are also applied ashore. For instance, transfers are properly sanitized; tour guides and drivers are wearing personal protective equipment, and the attractions we are visiting are following the same strict standards that we have on board.
TP: What would happen if someone onboard did show symptoms?
KM: We have a fully equipped onboard 24/7 Medical Center with highly qualified medical staff who are fully trained for COVID-19 treatment and who are supported by a 24/7 ashore medical team. Our comprehensive isolation procedure will deal with suspected cases, and the onboard medical team will establish direct contact with ashore laboratories to treat the case in conjunction with the local health authorities. We have dedicated isolation staterooms on board, which have their own air supply and dedicated medical team. Close contacts of any suspected cases will also be tested and treated if necessary.
TP: Where are most of the passengers coming from on MSC Grandiosa? Italy? Or the 25 other Schengen countries that have abolished internal borders?
KM: Approximately 90 percent of our guests for these initial cruises have come from Italy. The rest have come from other Schengen countries with France being the second most important source market.
TP: Have most of the passengers been following the rules, save for the one family that left the approved shore excursion?
KM: Our main objective when establishing our new protocol has been to reduce the risk of a suspect case joining the ship, to prevent and mitigate the risk of transmission during the vacation, as well as ensuring we have a dedicated response plan in place should someone fall sick.
Starting with testing at the pier, our guests have been extremely cooperative and understood that our Universal Health Screening is providing them with the confidence that everyone on board the ship is healthy.
We’ve also seen that our guests are very comfortable with the protocols on board as they are going out and enjoying the services while being reassured that the various measures are being applied on board and in all the ports. This includes our guests adhering to the required hygiene rules such as wearing masks and keeping appropriate distance from guests outside their social bubble.
Guests also enjoyed and respected the new buffet system – whereby guests tell the server the food they want, and it is plated for them – with some preferring the new approach and feeling it was more efficient.
MSC for ME wristbands were also distributed to everyone to facilitate proximity and contact tracing on board. The smart wearable wristband collects data related to interactions on board and ashore during excursions. The complete history of all contacts between guests, guests with crew and among crew members can be traced and identify anyone on board who may have been exposed to a positive or suspected positive COVID-19 case. Guests wore these bracelets throughout the week and were also able to make good use of them for contactless bookings and payments in particular.
The small number of guests that chose not to follow the rules and processes set out in the protocol, such as a family of three who broke away from their organized shore excursion, were not allowed to put other guests at risk and were denied re-embarkation. By departing from the organized shore excursion, this family broke from the “social bubble” created for them and all other guests.
TP: Does it appear that people are enjoying the cruise despite face masks and social distancing?
KM: The feedback from the first two cruises has been positive. Guests understand that protocols such as wearing face masks in public spaces and social distancing have been put in place for their own health and safety, and they are comfortable with them.
From an onboard experience perspective, we have opened all major facilities and services that our guests would have expected pre-COVID (i.e. specialty restaurants, cafes, shops, theaters, spa etc.), but in a far more spacious setting as we sail at a reduced capacity.
Our guests came back from the shore excursions happy and were reassured that the same high standards we’re applying towards health and safety on board was also able to be undertaken by our tour operators and tour guides.
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