The MSC Grandiosa returned to the port of Genoa Sunday, seven days after leaving the capital of the northern Italian province of Liguria on a cruise that saw some 3,000 passengers and crew call at the ports of Civitavecchia, Naples, Palermo and Valletta on MSC Cruises first voyage since the cruise industry shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The voyage was not only MSC’s first, it was also the first major cruise line to set sail in the Mediterranean since the shutdown and was notable for its strict health and safety protocols, which will have been scrutinized by the global cruise industry.
MSC’s flagship Grandiosa is among the five largest cruise ships in the world with a capacity of over 6,000 passengers and while it sailed with less than half that capacity, the voyage was by far the largest experiment so far in returning to cruise operations and whether rapid pre-embarkation testing can point the way forward for the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to lift its no-sail order after months of shutdown.
Guests arrived according to a designated time slot to be screened as part of MSC’s, health and safety protocol, which includes a temperature check, medical review of a health questionnaire and an antigen COVID-19 swab test for every guest prior to boarding.
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Passengers who tested positive for the antigen test, which identifies whether a person has contracted the virus in the past, were then sent for a PCR molecular swab that tests to see if someone is currently infected.
The company said in a press release that “after completing these steps and having received the results of the test while in the terminal, guests that were fit to travel then embarked the ship according to the health and safety protocol which includes sanitation of both hand and hold luggage.”
MSC did not state whether anyone was denied boarding or tested positive for COVID-19.
“This morning the first cruise of MSC Grandiosa was successfully completed, the first ship to leave after the lockdown,” said the managing director of MSC Cruises Italy, Leonardo Massa. “We recorded a considerable level of satisfaction from our guests, who showed appreciation for traditional on-board activities and, in particular, the measures provided for by the rigorous health and safety protocol adopted by the company. The scrupulous observance of the measures envisaged by the protocol has allowed cruise passengers, aware that they are in a safe and secure place, to spend a week of vacation in full relaxation and fun”.
The Italian daily La Republica quoted passengers on the medical safety procedures implemented by MSC.
“The wait was long enough for the swab – said one passenger on the cruise – but they were much more efficient than I imagined”. “The medical examination before boarding was a particular experience – said another -, a bit long, tiring, but it fits. The rules are clear enough and they enforce them quite well ”.
Reembarkation denied to family that broke MSC’s on-shore excursion protocol
The voyage passed smoothly but was marred by one incident in which an Italian family was denied reboarding after breaking from an organized shore excursion during a call at the port of Naples.
“We had to deny re-embarkation to a family who broke from their shore excursion yesterday while visiting Naples, Italy,” Paige Rosenthal, a spokesperson for MSC Cruises, told USA TODAY.
“This family broke from the ‘social bubble’ created for them and all other guests, and therefore could not be permitted to re-board the ship,” Rosenthal said.
MSC’s stringent COVID-19 protocols allow only for organized shore trips and the spokesperson said that allowing the family to return to the ship would have posed a health risk to other passengers on the Grandiosa.
MSC Grandiosa as a ‘test case’ for rapid testing
As mentioned, those stringent protocols will now come under scrutiny to see whether rapid pre-embarkation and perhaps even on-board testing will point the way forward for the rest of the cruise industry.
Earlier this month, Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley suggested as much during a conference call with analysts, after parent company Royal Caribbean Group posted a $1.6 billion net loss for the second quarter 2020.
While Bayley offered no specifics as to how and when testing would take place, his statements led to speculation that pre-embarkation or onboard testing could become part of the Royal Caribbean COVID-19 protocols once the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lifts its no-sail order.
“Testing is part of the thinking, but we have not yet reached a point in our protocols where we’re ready to publish and release for discussion,” Bayley said.
“But it’s very likely that testing will occur. We’re also seeing in discussions with multiple destinations around the world, which is another component of the return to service, particularly as it relates to Caribbean that testing is very much at the front of how people are thinking about protocols for returning.”
Meanwhile, the MSC Grandiosa will set sail again tonight from Genoa on an identical itinerary.
The MSC Magnifica is scheduled to sail on a seven-night East Mediterranean cruise from Bari on August 29.
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