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COVID-19 testing, consulting group hopes to bring cruising back to Charleston, other ports

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The Carnival Sunshine is expected to resume sailings between its home port in Charleston and the Bahamas on April 3. Brad Nettles/Staff/File

As cruise lines repeatedly delay their return to the seas due to the coronavirus, a South Carolina resident is working to get pleasure ships like the Charleston-based Carnival Sunshine back in operation as soon as possible.

Former shipping line and railroad executive Carroll Neville of Mount Pleasant is working with Back 2 Cruise, a consortium of data and health care companies, to sign up cruise lines for a one-stop shop of coronavirus testing and prevention packages. The group offers services such as rapid testing, mobile labs, electronic clinical reporting, daily temperature checks, passenger health updates and onboard quarantine stations if needed.

Those services begin before a passenger embarks, with a welcome kit sent upon booking a cruise that includes a home antigen test, masks and a way to upload health information to a centralized portal. Passengers are tested again before they get on the ship, throughout the cruise if necessary, and again before disembarking. The program also includes testing and health services for crew members.

Getting the cruise lines onboard hasn't been easy.

"As you can imagine, the challenges to implement a safe and secure program that meets CDC Conditional Sail Orders, and also covers the individual cruise line's specific operations, safety, logistics and cost concerns is extremely complex, and constantly evolving," Neville said. "In tackling their COVID challenges, our approach is not one of, 'Here's the product for sale', but it's more of a consultative relationship where we are heavily engaged with a number of the largest cruise lines to finalize a program that works for their specific needs."

Neville, whose background is in marketing, is betting that a turnkey, start-to-finish testing, monitoring and management program will appeal to lines that otherwise will have to put together their individual programs piece meal to comply with federal guidelines and obtain a COVID-19 conditional sailing certificate. He's pitched the idea to the Cruise Lines International Association, which represents all major cruise operators sailing in the U.S.. The group was "very receptive" to the program, he said.

Cruise lines say they are looking for guidance, both from the CDC and private medical and science experts, so they can get back to cruising as soon as it's responsibly possible.

"The reality is, we want to do it in the right way and make certain that we're well prepared to be in compliance with whatever the rules and regulations are," Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp., told investors during an earnings call last week. "Everyone wants to act in the best interest based on science."

Neville also thinks a Back 2 Cruise program would be welcomed by places like Charleston, where residents are worried about the potential health effects of cruise ships visiting the local port.

"Not only is this a business for us, but it's helping to ensure safety for the community," Neville said.

The companies that make up the consortium include: Healthcare360, a health management software firm; rapid antigen and antibody testing company SeroClinix; Zmetra, which builds temporary medical, including quarantine, facilities; LDDR International, a COVID-19 testing firm; event logistics group Ion Marketing; and health care testing, screening and data management firm Virified.

Carnival, the only cruise line that calls Charleston's port a home, recently pushed back the start of cruises from U.S. ports through March 31. The next voyage of the Sunshine is now scheduled for April 3 — a five-day journey to the Bahamas and back. 

On the move

More cargo at the Port of Charleston has led to growth in the number of mechanics inspecting and fixing containers and chassis along the waterfront.

Last week, those mechanics — members of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422-A — announced they've found a new home to accommodate their increasing membership.

The union purchased a 4.3-acre parcel at 5663 Dorchester Road, just south of the Michaux Boulevard intersection, as the site for a new headquarters building. Jack Owens with NAI Charleston represented the union in the purchase, and Brent Case of Coldwell Banker Commercial represented the seller, Vacant Lots LLC. The group will relocate from its upper King Street offices at the corner of Congress Street.

ILA 1422-A isn't the only local waterfront labor group making a move. The union that represents most dock workers at the port — ILA Local 1422 — recently spent $10.55 million on a commercial building at 4349 Corporate Road in North Charleston. That group is moving from its longtime headquarters on Morrison Drive to keep up with growth in its membership.

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Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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