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How can the yachting industry prevent the spread of COVID-19?

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By Chef Kevin Towns

During this challenging and uncertain time, we are all looking for a “safe harbor.” In the yachting industry, we all know that safety is a high priority given the training requirements needed to be a part of this global industry. Receiving certifications such as the STCW and the Seafarer Medical Certificate ENG 1 are standard protocols.

With that in mind, we must turn our attention to a new nemesis, COVID-19, the coronavirus disease 2019. As we get ready for the beginning of the summer yachting season and beyond, it is imperative that we educate ourselves on this potentially dangerous virus as it relates to ourselves and our guests aboard our respective vessels. This starts by knowing the facts and information related to the virus; assessing the validity of the information; and ultimately, creating and implementing a plan of action that keeps crew and guests alike safe and informed.

The basics

As a starter, what is COVID-19? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and World Economic Forum, the virus is defined this way: A novel coronavirus is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are members of a large family of viruses that are transmitted between animals and people and cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-CoV) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV).

How does coronavirus spread? According to experts, the virus that is responsible for COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets generated when an infected individual coughs, sneezes or speaks. These droplets are too heavy to hang in the air. They quickly fall to the ground or on surfaces. 

A person can be infected by breathing in the virus if they are within 1m of a person who has COVID-19, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth before washing your hands.

The virus is believed (but not substantiated) to spread mainly from person-to-person by individuals who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Some recent studies have suggested (but not proven) that COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.

Who is most at risk for the coronavirus disease?

For most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low, according to the CDC. Older adults and people of any age with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, lung disease or heart disease are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Thorough personal hygiene and hand washing are critical parts of preventing the spread of COVID-19 as well as the proliferation of other pathogens, according to the SafeStaff Food Handler Certificate Program. When hands are not washed thoroughly with soap and hot water, the risk of contamination increases dramatically. Hand sanitizer should only be used as a secondary precaution if soap and water are not readily available. If necessary, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue

or use the inside of your elbow. Clean and sanitize common areas and surfaces frequently touched by people and foreign objects. And last but not least, stay home with an illness of any kind.

Now that we have a better understanding of what we are dealing with, let’s look at an effective plan of action that includes preventative measures.

Crew Accountability

Poor personal hygiene is one of the primary causes of the spread of infectious diseases, according to the CDC. Good personal hygiene includes clean uniforms, avoiding touching one’s hair, nose and mouth, maintaining one’s health by eating nutrient-rich meals, and getting proper rest. Crew should avoid smoking on board. In addition, they should eat meals in appropriate designated areas, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid sharing cups and water bottles.

It is imperative that all crew members pay close attention to their health and report any illness or any symptoms of illness to the captain immediately. Any crew member diagnosed with an illness for any reason should be excluded from work and should not return to the yacht until he or she has been cleared to do so by a medical doctor, the captain or whomever serves as the medical officer onboard.

Also all crew members should adhere to CDC recommendations (i.e. the covering of their face with a mask) as it relates to their movement away from the vessel.

Cleaning and Sanitizing of the Vessel

The proper cleaning and sanitizing of the boat and its interior on a regular schedule goes a long way in halting the spread of the virus. This area of the job will now require more vigilance than ever. According to the CDC, current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection that should remain on the surface for a minimum 30 seconds as best practice measure for the prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in work environments and community settings. 

Yacht crews have the responsibility of monitoring all steps in the application of cleaning and sanitizing products with the goal of providing thorough protection for guests from the threat of the virus.

This may be the most challenging aspect of this new reality, given the nature of overall guest experience and expectation. But it can be done. (See these links to the CDC’s and WHO’s recommendation for products that kill and protect against coronavirus.)

Whether you are the owner, captain or a crew member on the vessel, we are all in this together. We all still have a lot more to learn about this new adversary. But with the right training, reliable information and the means to apply it on our vessels, we can use preventative measures that can minimize our exposure to the risk of contamination of this new uninvited guest.

Chef Kevin Towns has been a chef aboard yachts for more than 15 years and is the owner of Maritime Food Safety Systems in Fort Lauderdale. The company provides instruction, certifications and compliance consulting for the maritime industry. For more information, visit www.mfssusa.com. Comments on this essay are welcome below.

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