comscore Column: Cruise ships can adapt to COVID-19 health threat | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Editorial | Island Voices

Column: Cruise ships can adapt to COVID-19 health threat

  • Todd Offutt, a retired Coast Guard commander, was the commercial harbors manager and district manager for Oahu from 2013-2016.

    Todd Offutt, a retired Coast Guard commander, was the commercial harbors manager and district manager for Oahu from 2013-2016.

Hawaii’s encounters and ongoing response with the coronavirus has raised fear and concern about economic and health impacts to tourism and the state’s population.

Cruise ships in particular pose a unique challenge because passengers are in a social environment, in close proximity to other passengers and crew, sharing many of the same amenities, utensils, cups and so forth. Once passengers and crew disembark, they ride in taxicabs and transportation buses, visit island hotels and eat at restaurants frequented by others.

Yet this situation is not unique to the cruise industry or even Hawaii (think Las Vegas), and there are steps that can be adopted from other leisure travel industries and destinations.

This past week, news outlets reported that more than 3,000 travelers on two coronavirus-stricken cruise ships (elsewhere) returned home to 40 countries, sparking fears of further contagion from the virus. (The incubation guideline for coronavirus is about two weeks.)

From 2013 to 2016, Hawaii’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Harbors Division — in cooperation with the Department of Health and other agencies — drafted protocols to prevent the spread of contagions in DOT cruise terminals. They also updated notices to handle and dispose waste from vessels when they visit Hawaii, and thresholds to report illnesses from ships before they arrive.

At the time, it was expected that such protocols would be updated and supplemented depending on the nature of any such virus that might emerge. Those procedures built on earlier lessons. In 2003, the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL) adopted aggressive Guidelines to Prevent and Reduce Risk of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). More recently, in early March, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) adopted additional enhanced measures. (ICCL merged with CLIA in 2006.) More about CLIA’s new COVID-19 measures — and its rationale to continue cruises — is posted at

Given what is known about COVID-19 — and with the expertise of the state’s epidemiologist — DOT is well-poised to combat this challenge by meeting collaboratively with stakeholders on the best ways to mitigate risks. This may involve: (a) use of ultraviolet technologies; (b) mandatory use of hand sanitizer (many passengers currently “opt-out”); (c) modifying onboard activities and dining arrangements; (d) alerting passengers beforehand as to mandatory safeguards; and (e) other enhanced measures recently proposed by CLIA.

Additionally, DOT’s efforts should involve other stakeholders, including: federal and state agencies, to implement new measures and lessons learned; vendors, waste haulers and service providers, to ensure no “downstream” consequences of contaminated waste or wastewater; ground transportation, on ways to sanitize vehicles; and DOT Harbors’ own employees and commercial ship agents, who come in frequent contact with passengers and crew.

As an avid cruiser and trekker, I am a firm believer of increased vigilance in the wake of SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and now COVID-19. Many of these measures, when practiced regularly, would even stem the half-million deaths attributed annually to the common flu.

Though we cannot hide from the risks of a globalized society, we can take steps to reduce risks in the near term, until a vaccine is developed, or until science sheds light into treatment. Resilience and adaptability must continue to be the order of the day — both now and as we move into the challenges of a new century, be it from globalization, exploring the depths of our oceans, and even microbes from space travel.

Locally and in the near term, with swift action and determination, the economic lifeline of the state’s robust cruise industry can continue to show aloha to visitors of the great state of Hawaii.

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