As the coronavirus-related suspension on non-essential travel continues and cruise lines must delay returning to normal operations due to ongoing travel bans, port closures, and health and safety guidelines, what exactly is happening on board your favorite cruise ships?
What Ships Aren’t Doing
With cruise travel shut down worldwide, cruise ships aren’t currently hosting passengers, sailing between popular ports of call, putting on shows, offering exotic menus, or otherwise continuing with all the popular activities and options so familiar during a cruise vacation.
This does not mean, however, that the crew members who are still onboard ships are enjoying their own relaxing getaways, and this is not an ongoing vacation for cruise ship employees. But what are cruise ships doing when there are no passengers on board?
What Cruise Ships Are Doing While Shut Down
The exact day-to-day activities aboard any cruise ship at this time will vary based on the size and type of vessel, the requirements of its cruise line, where it is waiting out the suspension, and what needs to be done to keep each ship in top shape, ready to resume sailing. Different ships are currently engaged in a variety of actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Repatriating Crew Members
Many ships have participated in tremendous repatriation efforts to help crew members return to their home countries. Because of air travel restrictions and difficulties flying between different countries, a number of ships have served as transports to take crew members to open ports that would permit access to air travel.
On larger lines, this involved complicated shifting of crew between vessels so they could reach ports closest to their home destinations, and travel plans had to take into account which ports would permit debarkation, what airlines serviced which areas, and what restrictions crew members faced in transferring home. This monumental effort has helped many crew members return home to be with their families during these uncertain times.
Safeguarding Crew Health
Most cruise ships still have some crew members on board, either because they’ve chosen not to return home, there are not yet travel plans that permit their repatriation, or they are essential to keep the ship functioning even while it is out of service.
While still on the ships, extensive actions are being taken to safeguard the crews’ physical and mental health, including regular temperature checks and other health screenings, as well as promoting social distancing and isolation to deter any disease spread.#
Because this can be very mentally stressful, most cruise lines have offered therapy and counseling services to their crew members, including mental health hotlines and online options to work through difficult emotions.
Repositioning for Embarkation Ports
Where possible, cruise ships are slowly getting into position for their return to service by stationing at or near their anticipated embarkation ports and projected itineraries. This will permit the ships to be ready to begin sailing again as soon as the all-clear is announced. Not all ports can keep every ship nearby, however, so cruise lines must be flexible and creative about how to position ships for the most effective and efficient operations when they are able to reopen to passengers.
As most cruise lines are planning for a gradual or phased-in return to service, ships that won’t be among the first to resume operations are more likely to stay at different ports until they are called back to sailing.
In some areas, cruise ships are serving as housing assistance for foreign workers who may not be able to return to their home countries because of convoluted or impossible travel arrangements.
In some cases, these are workers who have already recovered from COVID-19 and are no longer infectious, but they are unable to secure suitable housing on land. These workers are not all cruise ship employees, but may be construction workers, contract consultants, or other workers who have become stranded in locations far from their homes.
Even while cruise ships have suspended passenger service, they are still maintaining minimal operations to keep the ships safe and properly functional. This includes retaining a skeleton crew and regularly inspecting engines, air circulation systems, plumbing, and other critical services on board.
In some cases, there may be training operations underway in order to ensure crew members are ready for the return-to-service as soon as it is permitted.
Because increased health measures will be mandated onboard when ships do return to service, many cruise lines are already installing the necessary sanitation upgrades on each ship.
This could include new handwashing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers in public areas, upgrading the air filtration systems, improving contactless options, installing dividers at service counters, shifting seating to improve social distancing, and other options intended to help promote better health and sanitation onboard.
When a cruise ship is out of service for several weeks, it may be best to enter “cold layup” status. This is when different systems are completely shut down and measures are put in place to protect items that won’t be used for a lengthy period.
This can include the use of dehumidifiers to protect finishes when air isn’t circulating as much, storing linens in dry areas, putting mattresses on their sides to keep them in good shape, reducing overall energy usage to conserve fuel, and performing regular checks and inspections for corrosion or other system difficulties.
The exact measures that will be used vary based on the ship’s size and the duration of the layup, but each step is intended to help keep the ship in good condition and allow it to return to service in an efficient manner.
During this extended hiatus, every cruise line employee – both on land and still at sea – is carefully monitoring how the situation changes. Disease case numbers, health recommendations, treatment options, and other details are under constant evaluation so cruise ships can adapt quickly to the changing environment.
At the same time, the cruise ships and lines are also monitoring local weather conditions, political unrest, and other issues that can dramatically impact operations, even without passengers onboard. Corporate offices are in touch with cruise ships as new developments emerge, and everyone is keeping a close eye on how the industry may change and adapt as ships start sailing again.
Returning to Service
Different cruise lines are anticipating returns to service as early as the end of July or early August, while some lines may not be back in operation for several more weeks or months. This is an unprecedented situation for all of the travel industry, cruise ships in particular, and everyone is aware that the suspension may be further extended, different ports will have different opening dates, and different countries may require different screening measures.
Depending on the cruise ship and the measures it has taken during this suspension, it could take 2-3 weeks or longer to return to service – getting resupplied for passengers, docking at its home port, bringing aboard crew members – once operations are cleared to resume.
No matter what is going on aboard each individual ship at this time, one thing is certain – every cruise line and every crew member is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to welcome passengers back aboard, and while cruising is sure to look and feel different for some time to come, everyone is anticipating when they will be able to set sail once again.
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