Despite masks, coronavirus fears, Norwegian CEO predicts cruising will 'bounce back very, very well'
The CDC's "no sail order" has left about 100 cruise ships in the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf of Mexico idle, either in port or wallowing at anchor. USA TODAY
Cruise ship passengers may have to don masks, see fewer tables in the dining room and, frankly, fewer fellow guests aboard when they eventually return to sea.
And as for that old cruise-ship standard, the self-serve buffet?
"Likely not," said Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, in an interview.
"All the basic elements if cruising will always be there – the great value, the multiple destinations, the great dining," Del Rio said. Most of the changes will be similar to those they are already encountering in daily life to cope with COVID-19.
Del Rio spoke to USA TODAY during a tumultuous week in which the company warned it could face bankruptcy reorganization, then a day later announced it could stay solvent for at least a year by reeling in $2.2 billion in new capital. On Thursday, it announced stock deals that boosted its capital to 18 months' worth, according to Del Rio.
"That's a very long runway," Del Rio said, and "a heck of an insurance policy."
With the financial side of the business now under control, Del Rio can now focus on dealing with health precaution overhauls to lure back passengers after major cruise lines saw their business devastated by the virus. Passengers and crew became ill – some died at sea – and some countries turned ships away.
But he has plenty of time. While rival Carnival Cruises announced its ships might start taking passengers as soon as Aug. 1, Del Rio said he's not ready to announce a sailing date after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's no-sail order presumably expires in July.
He's also not ready to announce specific changes to allay health fears except to say he's personally involved and that Norwegian has taken on a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner to consult on the improvements. He says, however, social distancing and fewer passengers on ships are distinct possibilities.
"We believe that customers will feel comfortable" with the changes, he said. Many apparently are, based on strong bookings for 2021 with relatively little additional discounting even after the dreadful industry-wide reports of COVID-19 on ships and a shutdown in marketing.
Even senior citizens, an industry mainstay but a high-risk group for the coronavirus, are anxious to come back aboard, he said.
"These people have bucket lists," Del Rio said. "Their way of life is not going to be changed from a virus. They survived just about everything life threw at them. They're smart. They know what needs to be done to protect themselves. And they are confident we ... are going to do everything humanly possible to keep them safe."
"The cruise industry is going to bounce back very, very well," he said.