It’s been a busy few weeks for MSC Cruises. First, they released a comprehensive health and safety plan for all ships and crew. Then they announced their return to operation in the Mediterranean on board MSC Gradiosa and Magnifica. Now, they’re about to successfully complete their first cruise back after a nearly five-month pause in operation.
Ken Muskat, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at MSC Cruises USA, joined Porthole Cruise Founder and Editor-in-Chief Bill Panoff to discuss what’s happening on board MSC Grandiosa, the CDC’s no-sail order and he gives us an update about what cruisers can expect when they visit MSC Cruises’ private island resort, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve.
It was very emotional and a very exciting day for us and for the whole industry to be back in the Med
When asked about MSC Grandiosa‘s return to cruising just this week, Muskat was happy to report good news.
“The sailing so far is going really well. Everyone is acclimating very well to the new protocols. I’m happy to say that people are following the rules for the most part, everybody understands the importance of this. We’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into welcoming these guests back and spent a lot of time developing new health and safety protocols for this initial phase of restart,” Muskat said.
Will Shore Excursions Need To Be Pre-Arranged?
One major difference that guests will notice is that only MSC-sanctioned shore excursions are allowed for now. Guests who don’t follow the rules found out quickly that MSC Cruises is very serious. While inconvenient, there’s good reason.
“We’re requiring guests to sign up for one of our shore excursions. It’s normal shore excursions that you would do at any time but you are required, in order to get off the ship, you need to do one of our organized shore excursions. The reason that we’re doing that is then we can ensure that every aspect of the guest time ashore meets the appropriate standards of health and hygiene. The way that we do the transfers and the proper sanitation, the tour guides, the drivers are all wearing protective equipment, this allows us to make sure that all of our guests are having that kind of experience,” he said.
Not everyone wanted to follow the rules, however. Muskat revealed that one family had already been kicked off the ship for failing to follow the outlined protocols.
“We did have a family sway away from the shore excursion that they weren’t supposed to do, it’s against the rules and we didn’t let them back on board. It’s a tough decision to make, but in this environment, you can’t risk it,” he said.
The cruise line is also working on ways to make sure the crew can get off the ship safely through protected shore visits. It’s something they are focused on moving forward, explained Muskat.
“We’re currently working on a number of ways for the crew to be able to have protective visits ashore. They obviously depend on being able to jump off the ship to go ashore to get some shopping and essentials. We’re still working through that process on how to enable them to do that. We definitely want them to be able to do that,” he said.
MSC Cruises’ COVID-19 Testing Process
A major aspect of the restart process for MSC Cruises was securing a fast and effective COVID-19 test which each passenger is required to take prior to boarding the ship. Muskat outlined what the process was like for guests
“All passengers are tested for COVID-19 using the immunofluorescence method, basically a swab of the nose and throat. We do that at the terminal when they arrive and then it takes some time to get the results back. If they come back negative, they’re free to continue the embarkation process. If for some reason the test comes back positive, these guests are then put aside and they get a secondary swab test while they’re in a separate waiting area at the terminal and we await the results for those tests. If they come back negative, then they’re free to go on board. If they come back positive, then they’re not allowed to board the ship,” Muskat explained.
The Bigger Industry Picture
There’s a bigger picture in play here. If MSC Cruises can prove they can operate safe and successful cruises in the Mediterranean, it could have some sway on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding a return to cruising in America and elsewhere around the world.
“I’m also hopeful that what we’re starting to see in the Med and putting into practice finally these health and safety standards, that the CDC and other government officials will see that it’s working and that we can start to move forward in other markets a little bit quicker,” Muskat said.
Currently, MSC Cruises is planning to return to operation in November and the cruise line is hopeful that date remains unchanged. As the summer has progressed, optimism that cruising would return in 2020 seemed less and less, but as more cruise lines return to operation, that optimism and enthusiasm is on the mend.
“Right now we’re feeling very hopeful that we’re going to be able to stick to that November date and we’re going to get back to cruising in 2020,” he said.
One of the worst things about the COVID-19 pandemic for MSC Cruises was that their new private island resort, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, has sat empty since March. The island was set to be a staple on most Caribbean itineraries for the cruise line and they spent a lot of time and resources building the infrastructure and preparing for guests. The island was only open for a few months before the pandemic shut down the industry.
According to Muskat, guests shouldn’t expect much to be different once the island opens up once again.