Two cruise rivals form expert panel to advise on safe return to operations

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Panel will be co-chaired by former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (left) and former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

As the cruise industry struggles to win approval to start sailing again, two major players, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., have set up a panel of public health experts. The aim is to ensure that plans submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other regulators apply the best available public health, science and engineering insights. The work of the panel will be shared with the entire cruisw industry and regulators.

The companies have asked Gov. Mike Leavitt and Dr. Scott Gottlieb to serve as co-chairs of the newly formed group, called the “Healthy Sail Panel.”

Leavitt is a former three-term governor of Utah who served as Administrator of the EPA and Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Dr. Gottlieb was the Commissioner of the FDA from 2017-2019 and served as the agency’s Deputy Commissioner for Medical and Scientific Affairs from 2005-2007. He is a physician trained in internal medicine.

Other panelists are

  • Helene Gayle MD, MPH, who is currently CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. Previously was president and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization. An expert on global development, humanitarian and health issues, Dr. Gayle spent 20 years with the CDC, working primarily on HIV/AIDS. She has also worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, directing programs on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH
  • Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, who is Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Officer for pharmaceutical giant Merck. Prior to joining Merck, she served as the Director of the CDC from 2002-2009 and was the first female to hold that position.
  • Steven Hinrichs, MD, who is Professor and Chair in the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the Director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory (NPHL), and Director of the University of Nebraska Center for Biosecurity. In his position as laboratory director he has been responsible for the development of a statewide program for the rapid identification of biological agents of mass destruction. He is principal investigator of multiple national awards from the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) and the CDC and the U.S. Department of Defense for the development of an outreach program to extend training and expertise in the early recognition of biological warfare agents.
  • Michael Osterholm, MD, PhD, is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and an international leader on the world’s preparedness for pandemics. He has led numerous investigations into internationally significant disease outbreaks.
  • Stephen Ostroff, MD, has long experience in public health, having served at high level positions at the FDA and CDC. He was the Acting Commissioner of the FDA from 2015-2016, and before that served as the FDA’s chief scientist. Ostroff joined the FDA in 2013 as chief medical officer in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and senior public health advisor to FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Prior to that he served as deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, where he was also acting director of CDC’s Select Agent Program. While at the CDC he focused on emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and coordination of complex outbreak response. He retired from the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service at the rank of Rear Admiral (Assistant Surgeon General). Ostroff was also the director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and acting physician general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and has consulted internationally on public health projects in South Asia and Latin America.
  • William Rutala, PhD, MS, MPH, has experience medically managing a variety of diseases and extensive experience studying epidemiology and virology, particularly managing outbreaks and emerging pathogens.
  • Kate Walsh, PhD, the Dean at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and E.M. Statler Professo is a leader in education for the global hospitality industry. She has extensive industry knowledge gained from serving as the former director of training and development for Nikko Hotels International, corporate training manager for the former Bristol Hotels, and senior auditor for Loews Corporation.


The panel has been working for nearly a month and will offer its initial recommendations by the end of August. The cruise lines said its work will be “open source,” and could be freely adopted by any company or industry that would benefit from it.

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

“We compete for the vacationing consumer’s business every day, but we never compete on health and safety standards,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. “While the cruise industry has always had rigorous health standards, the unique challenges posed by COVID-19 provide an opportunity to raise the bar even higher.”

“Health and safety are the highest priority for all CLIA cruise line members as demonstrated by this initiative on the part of two of our largest members. We commend this and parallel efforts of all of our members, large and small, who are working tirelessly to develop appropriate protocols based on input from health authorities and medical experts in the U.S. and abroad,” said Kelly Craighead, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

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