ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN ENCORE — Harry Sommer looked out a window in the Haven dining room on Saturday evening. His eyes widened. “We’re moving! I’ve got to text the team.”
A year-and-a-half ago, a ship beginning an Alaska itinerary out of Seattle would not be an event the CEO of NCL would feel urgency to share. But this voyage was NCL’s first U.S. departure since the pandemic was declared, and it would be a test of dozens of protocols and procedures instituted to protect passengers and crew from infection.
Every passenger who boarded not only had to show proof of vaccination, but had to submit to an antigen test prior to boarding.
But there was a glitch — a few glitches — in that process: Not all of the information that some passengers had submitted in advance, a requirement designed to streamline the testing procedures, successfully made it into the third-party testing company’s system, leading to long waits to be tested.
The testing company’s system crashed twice, resulting in further delays. And passengers didn’t always show up at their appointed times, requiring staff to go up and down the line to find who was actually in the next group to be admitted.
The line stretched for blocks, and wait times hit three hours. NCL staff walked the line handing out cookies and cake. Apologies were made, and wine with dinner was comped that evening.
Sommer said the situation was a “near perfect storm” of unfortunate circumstances and the company would work to ensure it would not recur.
The ship departed about an hour behind schedule, but if guests were annoyed with the delays of the day, their displeasure didn’t last long. With all restaurants, bars and entertainment options open, it quickly resembled any pre-pandemic cruise, but with a vax-bubble bonus: It was likely not only safer than any vacation alternative, it was safer than going to the grocery store.
In fact, said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a member of NCL’s Sailsafe Council, “This is the [safest], other than locking yourself in your home.”
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A self-described “vaccination zealot,” Ostroff, who had worked for more than 20 years as an infectious-disease specialist for the CDC and later was chief scientist for the FDA, said he was comfortable going unmasked onboard the ship, though he would put one on during shore excursions.
“There’s a difference between 100% and 95% vaccinated,” he said, in reference to a CDC-approved alternative to a fully vaccinated ship. “One hundred percent ought to be the standard for cruise ships, plain and simple.”
Sommer illustrated the difference, using the Encore as an example. “In a ship this size with only 95% vaccinated, you could have 200 unvaccinated passengers and 100 unvaccinated crew. We won’t be in that situation.”
NCL has gone to great lengths to sail with 100% vaccinated and tested passengers, up to and including challenging the state of Florida in court to reverse its prohibition of businesses asking patrons for proof of vaccination.
CEO confident NCL will win in court
A ruling on the challenge is imminent. NCL has a cruise scheduled to sail from its new cruise terminal in Miami on Aug. 15. In an interview with Travel Weekly, when Sommer was asked what would happen to that sailing if they lost the case, he responded, “[The ruling] will go our way. We’re going to win. The judge sort of tipped her hand” by saying that requiring a vaccine is not discriminatory.
He acknowledged that whichever side loses will likely appeal, but said that the judge’s ruling would be in effect until the appeal was heard.
While the judge’s comments certainly suggest she’ll rule against the prohibition, in a separate but related case, observers were surprised when Florida’s challenge to the CDC’s authority to mandate rules regarding cruise ships and Covid-19 was successful (this case is currently under appeal).
Pressed for what would happen to the Aug. 15 sailing if the case turned against NCL, Sommer again expressed confidence NCL would win, but acknowledged the cruise line has considered options, adding, “It’s critical to operate safely. And it’s critical to operate.”
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