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The world is starting to reopen to travel. Shanghai Disneyland has reopened operations and, soon, cruising will resume — possibly initially in China, as well. But what will it take for global health organizations and potential guests to feel comfortable cruising in the short term? Even before boarding, medical testing of some kind is likely to be a requirement to ensure healthy travels.
In the past, screening for cruise ships encompassed only a self-reported health questionnaire asking whether each passenger had any symptoms or had been recently traveling in virus hot spots. If the answer to either question was “yes,” a visit to the ship’s doctor may have been in order or, in the worst-case scenario, boarding may have been denied.
However, receiving honest questionnaire responses was always suspect. Guests may have feared being outright denied embarkation and incurring full cancellation penalties or being quarantined to a stateroom for the duration of the voyage.
Current cruise line cancellation policies are more relaxed, at least. Sick or anxious clients can reclaim their money much closer to boarding — sometimes within just a day of sailing. So, the questionnaires are likely to return, but further testing is sure to be implemented as a guarantee that all passengers are healthy.
Shanghai Disneyland is using thermal sensors to measure temperatures for fevers as multiple guests pass checkpoints, and it’s reasonable to assume cruise lines will do the same as a general precaution. Specific to COVID-19, they may also require rapid testing akin to what Emirates has rolled out ahead of some flights to ensure no incoming passenger tests positive for the virus.
The greatest challenge, though, is testing up to thousands of cruise guests versus at most hundreds carried on a plane. Will there be enough tests available to accommodate everyone, and will the overall process be quick enough (usually 10-15 minutes per test) to cover them in a timely manner?
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And then there’s the issue of not overwhelming pier-side facilities at any given time. Assigned arrival windows might be stringently enforced versus a typical free-for-all of cruisers.
Or, to avoid such bottlenecks on the day of: Pre-screening of healthy passengers shortly before sailing and proof of zero infection might suffice. Provided that everyone, crew included, tests negative for COVID-19 and is incapable of infecting others, they should be free to enjoy the voyage as usual.
The remaining caveat involves what happens when passengers go ashore, catch the virus in a visited destination and bring it onboard. To avoid such a scenario, testing would technically have to be conducted at each port of call as well, which again may prove impractical.
In short, there are still a lot of logistics to consider before cruises return in a pre-vaccine world. A cure, or widespread treatments, will eventually preclude the need for such vigorous testing measures. But, until then, the burden is on each individual cruise line and ship to ensure the safest possible return to service. Stay tuned to see exactly what that will look like.