ROME—The more than 1,000 passengers and 1,500 crew now onboard the Italian cruise ship MSC Grandiosa are nothing short of guinea pigs as they set out on a seven-night adventure that most of the world thinks will go terribly wrong. The massive ship, operating at 70 percent capacity, though MSC will not confirm the number who boarded, pushed off from the largely empty cruise terminal of Genoa in northern Italy. It has stops scheduled for Civitavecchia/Rome, where more people will board, before traveling on to Naples, Palermo, and Malta before returning to Genoa next Sunday.
The inaugural cruise is the first step to relaunching the multi-billion dollar cruise industry, which has taken a heavy hit in the pandemic, made worse by those initial images at the beginning of the crippled Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan as COVID-19 ripped through its cabins. One-by-one, cruise ships were docked with hordes of passengers disembarking straight into mandatory quarantine. Many argue that it’s too soon to get back to sea, but the cruise lines insist they are doing everything they can to keep passengers safe.
MSC manager Leonardo Massa told The Daily Beast that the safety precautions put in place are the most any cruise line has ever attempted, including more than 100 hand-sanitizing stations, clearly marked social distancing markations “all over the ship,” and “lots of plexiglass.” The buffets will be closed, replaced by pizzerias and sit-down restaurants where movement is limited. And there will be no dancing or other group activities that encourage person-to-person contact.
Each passenger—80 percent of whom are Italian and the rest only from Schengen countries—had to test negative for COVID-19 before getting on the ship, and then had to pass through an immunofluorescence test to detect any sign of the virus. The usual cruise card is no more, and the pandemic cruise guests have all been asked to wear bracelets used to make tap payments. The bracelets will also be used for contact tracing should anyone fall ill since they will track each passenger’s movements.
On Sunday night, passengers were posting images and comments to various cruising Facebook groups about how great it was to get back to sea. Many thought the mandatory masks were “too much” since everyone would presumably be COVID-free, but most were so happy to be back on a ship. Others posted comments about it being "too soon" or how if this goes terribly wrong, it will be years before cruises will be allowed to operate.
Maria Rita Passavia, a passenger posting on the MSC Grandiosa Fan Club open Facebook Page, described finding masks, sanitizer, and gloves in her cabin. “It's thrilling,” she wrote of being back on a cruise ship. Other people posted photos of the ship's mostly empty decks, swimming pool with socially distanced sunbeds, and embarkation procedures where each passenger was shot with a temp gun multiple times.
MSC’s executive chairman Pierfrancesco Vago issued a statement last week outlining the plan to ensure safety. “During the pause in our operations, we focused on developing a comprehensive operating protocol that builds upon already stringent health and safety measures that have long been in place on board our ships,” he said.
When the ship is at capacity with 1,500 guests and double that in crew members, they will each have their temperatures taken daily and can only get off the ship if they have reserved an excursion on land. Those excursions will be tightly guarded, with the drivers and tour guides required to undergo COVID testing prior to meeting the passengers. The excursions will operate in a bubble, with very little contact with the general population. No one will be allowed to explore any port of call on their own to limit contact in case a passenger, or someone on land, is an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19.
Italian ports on the Grandiosa’s call list are taking precautions, too. The port of Civitavecchia will offer dedicated shuttles from the train to the cruise terminal so passengers getting on or off won't come into contact with the general population. The mayor of Palermo instead told CNN recently that he welcomed the ships back as they have been vital to that city's tourism industry. The mayor of Venice, however, has put pressure on the cruise lines, and none have included the northern Italian city on their immediate itineraries.
MSC says it has revamped its air conditioning system to take in more air from the outside and is also keeping 250 cabins empty, about a tenth of the total, for eventual isolation if someone exhibits symptoms. If all goes well, MSC will launch the Magnifica next week from the southern port of Bari in Puglia which will travel to the Greek ports of Corfu, Katakolon, and Piraeus. It is yet unclear how a new ordinance by the Italian government that requires anyone returning to Italy from Greece to take a COVID test will impact these cruisers.
If MSC is able to keep COVID at bay, despite conventional wisdom and recent memories of the Diamond Princess debacle off the coast of Japan at the beginning of the pandemic, Costa cruises will start their own itinerary in September, but with only Italian passengers stopping at only Italian ports.
Other cruises are slated to begin in October, but the global cruise industry is not likely to resume before 2021.