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What Will Become of the Cruise Ship Smorgasbord?

Cruise companies have been fighting contagious viruses for years, which loyal cruisers say makes eating aboard as appetizing as ever

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In those early days of the novel coronavirus, as we all watched its terrifying spread from its point of origin, cruise ships dominated the headlines.

Reports of big numbers of cases on board were bandied first as a precautionary tale, then simply a precursory one. In the eyes of the wider public, the Diamond Princess, the site of one of the first major outbreaks outside of China, with 712 infections, 14 dead, and thousands quarantined for weeks, demonstrated not just the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, but a failure on the part of the industry — one often maligned as a source of disease outbreaks in general.

For many loyal customers and people within the industry, though, the illness’s strong sea legs represent bad timing and unfortunate coincidence — a function of nearly 4,000 people, more than a quarter of them staff, packed into a ship less than 1,000 feet long — more than a failure of procedures. The virus caught cruise ships, hit hard and early, off guard and before epidemiologists and public health experts fully understood its nature and characteristics.

It’s no wonder, then, that the industry’s shockingly fast return to the stage leaves much of the American public wondering who in their right mind would go on a cruise right now — or, more precisely, in August, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “no sail” order on large cruise ships expires.

The answer, logically, is people who go on cruises: For those who already prefer their vacations shipboard, confidence in the industry barely wavered. An April survey by the Independent found that two-thirds of readers wouldn’t consider a cruise; that ratio was inverted for readers who had previously been on one. An industry survey in the U.K. similarly found that 75 percent of previous cruise customers would book again — down by only 4 percent from the previous year. And as of April, the LA Times reported that cruise ship bookings actually increased since the same time last year.

None of these surveys asked if or how cruisers still planned to eat aboard, if they’d still feel confident hitting the signature mile-long buffets or communal table-stacked dining halls — or if the presence or absence of these traditional setups would change their choice at all.

With its tightly packed lines, utensils used and reused, and massive numbers of strangers breathing directly over each other’s food, the classic cruise ship buffet and 1,000-person main dining room fall smack into the intersection of large gatherings and restaurants — two things that the novel coronavirus has turned into the stuff of horror movies.

But cruise companies come into the ring more prepared than many industries. “A lot of this is things we do every day,” says Wes Cort, the vice president of food and beverage operations for Norwegian Cruise Lines. “We have an advantage here because this is not a stretch for us.” Due to size and strict tracking requirements, ships have long held reputations for spreading norovirus — so companies have fought both the floating-petri-dish image and actual contagious diseases for years.

“I feel like they have a bad rap,” says Kathy Casey, a chef and owner of a food and beverage consultancy who has worked extensively on and with ships, and a cruiser herself. But in her 20 years of experience in the industry, she trusts the sanitation and safety situation completely. “I always joke with my team that I would lick the floor if you asked me to.”

Few people who watched a Japanese video simulating viral spread at a cruise ship buffet would do the same. The buffet seems like the first thing that ships should toss overboard, but so far few of the major cruise lines have released details of their new safety protocols for returning to service. “We’re doing all of this work now,” says Susan Lomax, the associate vice president of public relations at Celebrity Cruises, saying they were working with “a group of leading epidemiologists” to dive into what best practices will be.

The hesitation by companies to put out concrete policies plays out like a game of chicken, with those who speak first risking getting picked apart by the media, customers, and the public. “Cruise lines are talked about quite a bit now,” says Cort. “I watch CNBC, they talk about us every day.” Royal Caribbean ended up backtracking on their CEO’s comment that the famous Windjammer buffet won’t return: While most of the comments on Royal Caribbean’s blogpost on the topic support the company’s efforts — anything to get back on the board — a few voice hope that the changes are temporary. “Otherwise I may have to forgo cruising,” one cruiser posted.

“Buffets will exist in some sort of form,” says Chris Gray Faust, the managing editor of Cruise Critic, confidently, noting that their readers are “very passionate” about them. “But it won’t be this sort of free-for-all where you’re getting your own food.” The evolving nature of what we know about the virus keeps things unstable, as Gray Faust has heard from cruise line CEOs. “The thought is that every week they’re learning more about the disease, and so specific changes can’t be announced yet until they actually know what needs to be done.”

The first of the big lines, Norwegian, put out its new safety plan, called “Peace of Mind,” on June 1. Its plan includes a buffet, but not one that’s self-serve — food items will be dished out by staff. Though he acknowledges this may mean meals might take a little longer, with sanitation, distancing, and serving, Cort says they plan to adjust staffing to expedite the process. But he also knows what people care most about: “We’re not planning on adjusting our menus right now.”

Cort compares changing guests’ minds about self-serve to moving the opinion needle on plastic straws: When they explain it, it makes sense, and guests get it. But he’s adamant the change is minimal, and overall, the goal is “to provide exactly what [guests] have enjoyed in the past — albeit with masks on.” That contrasts with the headline on The Points Guy’s piece about boats returning. “Believe it or not, cruising is back — and it’s weirder than we expected.”

But the drastic headline belies the reality of the outlined safety procedures by Norwegian and smaller ships — which can return sooner than those over the CDC order’s 250-person limit. Many of the changes already exist on ships, points out Casey. “There’s handwashing stations right there at buffets,” along with sanitation stations outside dining rooms, and enthusiastic enforcement of personal use of them by crew members — like Norwegian’s “Washy Washy” song and this “Let It Go” parody by Royal Caribbean employees.

But unlike norovirus, which mostly spreads by particles, the coronavirus significantly spreads through respiratory droplets that travel through the air, meaning even the cleanest of hands can’t contain its movement between people. “On most ships, dining rooms are usually full,” says Sheri Doyle, the owner of Pacific Northwest Journeys, an independent affiliate of Travel Experts and a Virtuoso travel advisor. “People sit cheek to jowl, back to back; you can barely squeeze between tables.” She expects — and hopes for her own cruising and that of her clients — to see more spread out dining hours, and thus more social distancing. Gray Faust says on a lot of the larger ships, a trend away from communal tables was already underway. “The idea of eating with strangers has kind of been decreasing in popularity anyway,” leading ships to move toward smaller tables. “I think this will just accelerate that trend.”

Most notably, the “served buffet” style is already more common than most people realize, she explains. “Passengers weren’t actually reaching out and getting the food themselves” on many upscale lines, nor on larger lines like Holland America during other virus outbreaks. Cort says that normally when they switch to the served buffet, there’s pushback from guests. “I think people are going to be fully understanding,” he says of the current situation. And while the self-serve buffet has some avid fans who will be disappointed if it disappears, Casey notes that staff tune in closely to what people want, asking how much, aiming to please, and keeping the biggest draw on offer: a little bit of everything.

“People love a wide variety,” she says. “They like to cruise because you don’t have to make a lot of decisions,” and that includes on what to eat — the buffet means they don’t have to. As ships moved away from the mega-dining rooms, that variety also morphed — toward more small specialty restaurants, where, conveniently for the current situation, numbers can be controlled more easily through reservations. Cruisers want Indian food and French food; they want fancy meals and barbecue. They want the chance to eat food from Thomas Keller on Seabourn, Curtis Stone on Princess, and Edouardo Jordan on Holland America. These days, says Gray Faust, “some people never go to the buffet, never go to the main dining room.”

While the details about what cruise ship dining will look like in the coming months and years remain unknown, the major lines all emphasize the same thing: that they look to science and regulatory entities like the CDC and WHO for guidance. In addition, Cort points out that Norwegian already has a full division of the company dedicated to health and safety and has brought on Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and an experienced public health and medical policy expert, as an advisor.

As a cruise customer herself, Doyle hopes to see a vaccine or at least rapid tests administered to everyone at boarding before she gets back on, but she also wants to know more about one aspect that few CEOs seem to be addressing. “All the focus is on the guest, and not on worker safety,” she says, stating that recent webinars and industry events have largely ignored the health and safety of the staff — one of the more egregious oversights during the Diamond Princess crisis — not to mention how staff health can affect guests.

“It’s been really upsetting to me,” says Doyle. Three-quarters of the infected crew members on the Diamond Princess were food-service workers, but for his part, Cort says with the pre-screening, quarantining, and testing, his staff will be safe, and that they are already pretty well distanced at their stations. “Food safety inside the kitchen is paramount. I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do more there, really.”

The biggest changes floated so far come in overall reduction in numbers to promote distancing — how many people in a dining room, how many people on a boat. But Gray Faust discourages people from making the logical leap to considering this a sign of impending price hikes for a vacation format long seen as an affordable alternative to high-end resorts. In a recent call with Royal Caribbean’s parent company, she learned that newer ships sailing with just 30 percent load factor (of capacity) break even, and that even older ones — which tend to be less expensive — only need 50 percent to hit that mark.

On top of that, many ships gave customers of canceled cruises credits worth more than their original payment, meaning that plenty of customers have vacation money ready to spend. Doyle’s customers, both those with credits in hand and without, are mostly looking at next year, rather than the immediate reopening.

They assume there will either be a vaccine, “or that things will be better in some ways,” she reports. But with lines requiring lower deposits and offering lenient cancellation policies, the minimal financial risk is tempting.

For her, reassurances about all safety measures — for guests and workers — are top priority in bringing her back. “Overall, it won’t be fundamentally different,” she says of eating on cruise ships. “But new health and safety things might become normal, like how we wear masks in public.”

Which really forms the crux of the evolution of cruise ships and their dining rooms: It mirrors the changes we’re seeing in restaurants on dry land. “We’re all grappling with life as we know it changing,” says Gray Faust.

Really, cruisers considering whether to return to onboard dining rooms are no different from landlocked diners assessing the safety of returning to one of their favorite restaurants. But everybody’s own equation of risk versus reward depends on personal preferences. So while a certain kind of traveler — those for whom boutique hotels and Michelin restaurants are the norm — are unlikely to reassess their judgement of cruises, devoted passengers are trusting in cruise companies to help them find old joys under new circumstances.

Naomi Tomky is a Seattle-based food and travel writer.

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