U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is charged with the management, control and protection of the nation’s borders at and between official ports of entry. CBP is also charged with enforcing hundreds of laws and facilitating lawful trade and travel. They, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provide enhanced health screenings at our borders. So it should be of no surprise that CDC and CBP have been working together at U.S. ports of entry.
However, the latest Federal Register notice requesting information about cruise ship issues suggests that there may be room for improved interagency coordination.
On July 21, 2020, the CDC published a Federal Register notice with 28 questions seeking comments from the public that can be used to inform future public health guidance and preventative measures relating to travel on cruise ships. Written comments must be received by September 21, 2020.
The questions were extensive and many of them were operational in nature. For example, one question asks how frequently should cruise ship operators test all passengers and crew. Another posed, “What steps should cruise ship operators take to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 onto ships after resuming passenger operations?” There were also some non-operational questions, such as, what is the anticipated financial cost of testing all passengers and crew? And there were also questions related to incidents/operations that might happen at foreign ports, such as, “What precautions should cruise ship operators take during shore excursions to prevent passengers and crew from being exposed to COVID-19?”
These are all good questions, but the CDC failed to address any questions dealing with interagency coordination issues as they relate to waiting for events to occur and long waiting times. During my tenure in the federal government, I saw many adverse outcomes caused by added processes and long waiting times. For instance, at our ports of entry, some people were getting anxious and becoming distrustful toward CBP when they were waiting several hours at a time. Meanwhile, the CBP officers become more stressed by the increased number of complaints. The same is true in the private sector, whether it is banks, retail stores or cruise ships. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the added events can cause increase frustration.
In the Federal Register notice, it would have been useful to add questions on the variable of time as it relates to the requirement for increased testing, the need for the testing of specimens, the time to transport a person or to obtain medical care, and the added need/arrangements for screening passengers. In other words, as long as there is a new impact on both travelers and the cruise industry, then there should also be the need to reduce waiting times.
To put it differently, the CDC did not ask, for example, how much additional time would be required to test passengers prior to boarding, while on board the ship, disembarking and embarking while at any port, and disembarking at the final destination. These questions and their answers should not be taken lightly because the economic impact associated with added time is likely to be significant and will likely reduce the demand for taking cruises.
This is where the need for interagency coordination and collaboration becomes important. If the CDC had thought more about the importance of time (by working more with other agencies who have this experience), then additional questions on solutions about informing the traveler, identifying an appointment program, having self-serve opportunities, and virtual queuing would have been a part of the Federal Register notice.
This approach is familiar to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and CBP. Many years ago, these agencies learned of the issues associated with waiting in line and long wait times. CBP, for example, now has a website that allows individuals to obtain wait time data from our ports of entry. TSA has the MyTSA app, which provides airline passengers with 24/7 access to the most frequently requested airport security information on any mobile device. Moreover, the impact associated with time has been so significant that TSA created PreCheck and CBP created Global Entry. While the goals of these two programs are obviously different than the goals associated with health screening, the fact remains that any health screening process will create delays for everyone and any means to improve upon these processes (i.e., minimize time) will have a positive impact on our economy.
Thus, at least in this instance, interagency coordination has been lacking as it relates to certain operational issues associated with the pandemic response and cruise ships. And unless federal agencies ask the right questions, they are unlikely to get the answers they need.