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Cruise companies enlist former FDA head and other big names in health to a bid to woo back passengers

July 6, 2020, 9:20 PM UTC

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Chalk this up as another COVID sea change for cruising: The industry better known for organizing events around Kid Rock and Mickey Mouse is now assembling a super-group of epidemiologists and former senior government health officials.

The beleaguered cruise industry, closed for business until at least the fall, is hoping that a new “Healthy Sail” panel of public health experts can help it figure out better post-pandemic health and safety standards–and ultimately woo back passengers in the wake of COVID-19. The panel includes several bold-faced names, and is co-chaired by Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Mike Leavitt, a former governor of Utah and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which organized the panel last month, announced it Monday. The panel also includes Julie Gerberding, a former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the current chief patient officer of Merck; Helene Gayle, a longtime CDC veteran and former CEO of CARE, who’s now running the Chicago Community Trust; Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; and several other public health experts.

It’s a hefty array of expertise for the leisure-travel niche of cruising, one of the first industries to feel the impact of the global pandemic and still one of the most deeply affected. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and larger rival Carnival Corp. remain shut down under a CDC “no sail” order, and do not expect to resume cruising before mid-September at the earliest.

The “Healthy Sail” panel is expected to deliver its initial recommendations by the end of August. Its organizers promised to make those guidelines “open source” and available to competitors.

“This unprecedented disease requires us to develop unprecedented standards in health and safety,” Richard Fain, Royal Caribbean’s chairman and CEO, said in a press release. “Bringing aboard these respected experts to guide us forward demonstrates our commitment to protecting our guests, our crews and the communities we visit.”

Meanwhile, Carnival is rounding up its own group of public health experts to discuss the future of the industry’s health and safety. Separately on Monday, the world’s largest cruise company said it will host a “Global Scientific Summit on COVID-19” on July 23, in partnership with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

Carnival and the WTTC said their event will include government agencies and private businesses, who will “share the very latest science and medical evidence that can be used to inform practical, adaptable and science-based solutions for mitigating and living with COVID-19.” There are no former government agency heads yet listed on the event‘s website–but it has so far signed up several scientists and at least one Nobel laureate, biologist Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University.