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Health advisor to cruise lines describes how a Covid 'safe bubble' can be created on ships

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Key Points
  • Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who advised cruise lines on Covid safety protocols, believes ships can sail safely again from U.S. ports.
  • "I believe you can create a safe bubble around that experience," the former FDA chief told CNBC.
  • Gottlieb pointed to vaccination policies, Covid testing regimes and social distancing as important mitigation measures.
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Scott Gottlieb explains how a Covid safety bubble can be created on cruise ships

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who advised cruise lines on Covid protocols, told CNBC on Friday he believes a safe environment can be created on the ships.

Gottlieb's comments came one day after Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, demanding the public health agency allow cruise lines to immediately resume sailing from the U.S. ports.

Gottlieb, who co-chaired an advisory panel for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean, said on "Squawk Box" the companies have sensible policies in place in preparation for when they're allowed to begin operating after a Covid pause that's lasted more than a year.

"They've committed to things like mandatory testing of passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line came out recently saying they're going to require vaccination of all their passengers," said Gottlieb, who served as Food and Drug Administration commissioner from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration.

Gottlieb also noted that social distancing would be possible on the ships, saying "these cruises are not going to operate at full capacity."

"As you start to implement all these public health recommendations ... you start to create an environment that could be quite safe," he contended. "I believe you can create a safe bubble around that experience, especially when you're comparing it to other vacation experiences where you can't control the environment," he added.

Cruise ships were hot spots for Covid outbreaks last year in the early days of the global health crisis, prompting the CDC to issue its no-sail order in mid-March 2020. While the CDC has issued some guidance for cruise lines under its conditional sailing order, the agency has yet to specify a date for operators to resume sailing from U.S. ports.

In response to CNBC's request for comment on Gottlieb's remarks, the CDC said via email that it's "committed to working with the cruise industry and seaport partners to resume cruising following the phased approach outlined in the conditional sailing order. This goal aligns with the desire for resumption of passenger operations in the United States expressed by many major cruise ship operators and travelers, hopefully by mid-summer."

However, the cruise industry is growing impatient, after companies raised billions in debt and issued new stock to fund operations while sailing revenues dried up. Late last month, a trade group called on the CDC to permit a phased-in restart in early July. Operators have said they're seeing strong booking demand, suggesting people are starting to feel comfortable to return to cruises.

In a CNBC interview Wednesday, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald pointed to differences between restrictions in America and other countries across the world, where cruises have resumed in some places.

"A person today can fly from the U.S. to another country. Get on a cruise ship, and then come back to the U.S. whether they're vaccinated or not," Donald said on "Closing Bell." "But here in the U.S., even if you're vaccinated, at this point, you couldn't get on a cruise ship."

Donald complimented the Biden administration for its work on Covid vaccination distribution in the U.S., where roughly 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. He said he believes the cruise industry and CDC will be able to jointly reach an agreement on sailing.

"The administration has made huge progress with vaccinations and getting command of this thing," Donald said. "We're confident we can work together and arrive at something that would be a workable solution and hopefully we have sailings from the U.S. yet this summer."

Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain told "CBS This Morning" on Thursday that he would like the cruise industry to be "treated in a very similar way to the airlines," which have been allowed to fly. However, Fain is optimistic about the possible resumption of U.S. sailings in the second half of this year, citing President Joe Biden's goal for society to return to a semblance of normal by July 4.

CNBC's Katie Tsai contributed to this report.

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We're working with CDC and Biden administration so we can sail in the U.S. this summer

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion Inc. and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings′ and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel."