Virgin Voyages explores idea of COVID-19 tests for every passenger

Could cruisers soon be required to show a negative COVID-19 test to board a ship? At least one high-profile line is considering the idea.

Richard Branson-backed Virgin Voyages on Thursday unveiled a list of anti-coronavirus measures it planned to implement when cruising resumes that included “rapid and effective COVID-19 testing for all sailors and crew prior to embarking.”

“Sailors” is the term that Virgin Voyages uses for passengers.

The Voyage Well plan, as Virgin is calling it, noted that COVID-19 testing for passengers would be “dependent on medical advancements and availability,” and a spokesperson told TPG that the idea was something that still was in development.

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The testing requirement only would be implemented if it is feasible, the spokesperson suggested. Procedural details, such as whether passengers would need to get the test at home before departing for a cruise or would be tested at the pier before boarding, are among the things still being explored.

Several major tourist destinations including Alaska have implemented a COVID-19 testing requirement for visitors in recent weeks. But Virgin Voyages is the first high-profile cruise line to officially unveil an anti-coronavirus plan that includes COVID-19 testing for passengers as a pillar. Several big lines have issued return-to-cruising plans that include the regular testing of crew for the illness. But none of the plans have specifically mentioned across-the-board testing of passengers.

The Voyage Well plan that Virgin Voyages unveiled Thursday also calls for:

  • post-voyage notification process that makes it easy for passengers (and crew) to report any symptoms of illness they experience in the two weeks after sailing
  • Preboarding health checks and screenings for both passengers and crew
  • Thermal cameras in terminals and on board ships to monitor passenger and crew temperatures
  • Relaxed booking policies that make it easier for passengers who feel unwell or are concerned about traveling to postpone a sailing at the last minute
  • The implementation of best practices around sanitation, physical distancing, limited occupancy and health checks for everyone on board
  • The installation of new AtmosAir Solutions air purification systems on ships, which the line says use bi-polar ionization technology to kill 99.9% of viruses
  • The management of ship occupancy levels to allow for appropriate physical distancing in public spaces

Virgin Voyages also said it would emphasize the use of digital onboard technology to limit contact between people. The line noted that passengers will receive a previously announced digital armband that will allow them to make contactless payments for onboard purchases. Dubbed The Band, the armband also will act as a key for cabins and allow for boarding access to the ship.

Virgin also will implement “virtual queues” on ships that allow passengers to reserve a place in line through an app on their phones without actually standing in a line. A “service chat” feature will let passengers get assistance digitally without physically approaching a help desk.

(Photo courtesy of Virgin Voyages)
Scarlet Lady, the first ship from Virgin Voyages, is now scheduled to debut on Oct. 16. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Voyages)

Also, Virgin Voyages noted that even before the emergence of COVID-19, the line had not planned to offer communal food sharing, buffets or large dining halls on its ships.

Virgin Voyages said it created the Voyage Well plan with the guidance of an advisory group made up of scientists, doctors and clinicians.

“The health and well-being of our sailors is our number one priority, so we rolled up our sleeves with leading experts to further innovate and create an even healthier way to travel and still have an incredible vacation,” Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin said in a statement accompanying Thursday’s announcement. “We appreciate some people will be apprehensive about traveling.”

Virgin Voyages is joining a growing number of lines unveiling new health and safety plans that they will implement when cruising resumes. Earlier this month, Norwegian Cruise Line became the biggest cruise operator to unveil an anti-coronavirus wellness plan. It contained many of the same policies and procedures as Virgin Voyages outlined on Thursday.

The announcements come even as many of the biggest cruise lines push off plans for a restart to operations. Just this week, Norwegian Cruise Line canceled nearly all sailings through early October. Princess Cruises, Holland America, Silversea, Seabourn, Windstar Cruises and Cunard Line also have canceled all or most sailings into the fall.

At the same time, a handful of small-ship cruise specialists — mostly river lines — are starting up at least a few sailings in localized cruise markets around the world. Two relatively small vessels in French Polynesia, for instance, plan to resume tourist sailings in a matter of weeks.

Virgin Voyages in May pushed back the debut of its first ship, Scarlet Lady, until Oct. 16. The delay wasn’t the first for the ship. Scarlet Lady initially had been scheduled to sail its first “sneak-a-peek” voyages with paying passengers out of Miami in March of this year. But just days before the trips were set to begin, the line postponed the vessel’s maiden voyage until Aug. 7.

In pushing back its debut to October, Virgin Voyages said the startup would be a “soft opening” during which onboard protocols on Scarlet Lady would be adjusted due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The line said the official naming ceremony and maiden voyage for Scarlet Lady would be postponed until early 2021.

Virgin Voyages has been promising to shake things up in the cruise world with the arrival of Scarlet Lady. Able to carry 2,770 passengers at double occupancy and 17 decks high, the vessel is designed to cater to a hipster crowd with everything from a tattoo parlor to drag queen brunches and a colorful karaoke lounge. To ensure a proper party vibe, it’s also a kid-free travel zone, with a minimum age to sail of 18.

Virgin is going after travelers who might think themselves too cool to cruise. To that end, the ship has no buffets, no dress codes and no big Broadway-style theater shows. For entertainment, expect interactive dance parties, DJ sets and “microplays” instead, plus late-night games of dodgeball. Suites have a rock-star theme.

Additional resources for cruisers during the coronavirus outbreak:

Feature image courtesy of Virgin Voyages.

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