Taylor Dolven

CDC files appeal to keep cruise COVID-19 rules in place

MIAMI — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is fighting to keep its COVID-19 cruise regulations in place and warned a federal judge that without them, there is increased risk of COVID-19 spread in the U.S. On July 6, the CDC appealed a federal judge’s order in a lawsuit against the agency brought by Gov. Ron DeSantis that will turn its regulations for how cruise companies can operate in Florida during the pandemic into mere recommendations. The regulations require cruise ships to have COVID-19 testing capabilities aboard, perform test cruises if less than 95 percent of crew and passengers are vaccinated, and secure evacuation agreements with local hospitals in the U.S. cities they visit, among other things. The June 18 order from U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida said the CDC has not provided enough clear justification for its “conditional sail order” — a framework of regulations dictating how cruises can restart in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic — and is causing Florida to miss out on tax dollars generated by the cruise industry. Merryday’s order turns the regulations into recommendations, similar to those in place for the airline, hotel and entertainment industries, on July 18. Instead of proposing a narrower set of regulations before then, the CDC appealed July 6to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and asked Merryday to reverse his order while the appeal is heard. The CDC argues its cruise regulations fall under its broad authority to protect public health and are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In its request July 6, the CDC said cruise ships have a higher risk of COVID-19 spread than other venues like hotels and airplanes. “This Court’s order creates a substantial risk that cruise ships will exacerbate the introduction and spread of the virus in the United States,” the agency said. Meanwhile, cruise companies have already begun operating from Florida ports under the CDC’s regulations. An ocean cruise ship carrying paying passengers — Celebrity Edge — left a U.S. port for the first time in 15 months on June 26 from Port Everglades. Ships that don’t meet the CDC’s threshold that 95 percent of crew and passengers be vaccinated have successfully completed two-day test cruises from Florida ports with volunteer passengers and are now carrying paying passengers. Even with the CDC regulations in place, COVID-19 cases on cruise ships persist, but vaccines are proving effective at preventing the deadly ship outbreaks seen last year. Two children younger than 16 years old tested positive for COVID-19 on a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship in the Caribbean last month. The company isolated the children and evacuated them back to the U.S. Eight crew members on the company’s Odyssey of the Seas ship tested positive for COVID-19 last month, forcing the company to postpone that ship’s test cruise. Royal Caribbean International is requiring passengers 16 years old and older on cruises departing from U.S. and Caribbean ports to be fully vaccinated, except for cruises from Florida where the company will allow unvaccinated passengers to board, but with restrictions and special COVID-19 insurance. A recently-passed Florida law prevents companies operating in the state from requiring patrons provide proof of vaccination. Royal Caribbean International’s sister company, Celebrity Cruises, created a workaround to comply with the law and still achieve the threshold of 95 percent of passengers vaccinated. The company calls passengers in the weeks leading up to the cruise to confirm their vaccination status and remind them to bring proof of vaccination to the terminal. Those who don’t volunteer their proof of vaccination at the terminal are still be allowed to board but have to meet other requirements and restrictions, including multiple COVID-19 tests at their own expense. Cruise companies voluntarily stopped cruises in March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on several ships. The CDC put a “no-sail order” in place, banning cruises in U.S. waters, until the agency replaced it with its conditional sail order in October 2020. Since April, the CDC said it has approved 12 ships to begin revenue cruises and 13 ships for test cruises.

Royal Caribbean reverses on passenger vaccine requirement

Royal Caribbean International will no longer require any of its cruise passengers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 as it had previously planned to. In a press release June 4 announcing cruises for sale on eight of its ships from U.S. ports this summer, starting with Freedom of the Seas from Port Miami on July 2, the company said it will recommend passengers get the COVID-19 vaccine, but not require it. The announcement is a reversal from previous statements and vaccine protocols the company submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month that said it would require all passengers at least 18 years old and older to be vaccinated. “Guests are strongly recommended to set sail fully vaccinated, if they are eligible,” the company said in a statement. “Those who are unvaccinated or unable to verify vaccination will be required to undergo testing and follow other protocols, which will be announced at a later date.” The about-face is an apparent submission to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has insisted that there will be no exception made for cruise companies to a newly passed Florida law that fines companies $5,000 each time they ask a patron to provide proof of vaccination. Royal Caribbean International’s sister brand Celebrity Cruises (both owned by Royal Caribbean Group) is still requiring all passengers 16 years old or older be vaccinated on its seven-night Caribbean cruises that are restarting from Port Everglades on June 26. Lyan Sierra-Caro, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean International, said the plans to require passengers be vaccinated that the company submitted to the CDC only applied to its test cruises. According to CDC rules, cruise ships that don’t meet certain vaccination thresholds for passengers and crew must first do a successful test cruise before they can restart revenue cruises. “Our intention is to comply with all federal, state and local laws,” she said via email. On May 26, the cruise line updated its website to say that passengers 16 years old and older on its cruises from Seattle and The Bahamas are required to be vaccinated. Previously, the website said passengers 16 years old and older on all of the company’s U.S. cruises had to meet the requirement. In a statement, CEO Michael Bayley thanked DeSantis and other elected officials for their support of the industry, which has been paralyzed since it was forced to shut down in March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on several ships. “As of today, 90 percent of all vacationers booking with Royal Caribbean are either vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated in time for their cruise,” Bayley said in a statement. The company said all crewmembers will be vaccinated. The recently passed Florida law crafted by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis bars businesses, schools and government entities across Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. Under the law, which takes effect on July 1, businesses can be fined up to $5,000 per violation. It is unclear if cruise companies will be allowed to ask passengers if they have been vaccinated as part of the boarding process, even if they don’t require vaccination to board. The summer cruises announced by Royal Caribbean International are still pending approval from the CDC after each ship successfully completes a test cruise with volunteer passengers. The CDC has so far approved nine cruise ships, including Freedom of the Seas, Carnival Horizon and MSC Meraviglia from PortMiami, for test cruises, meaning the ships won’t meet a CDC threshold of 95 percent of passengers and 98 percent of crew be vaccinated, and two ships — Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Equinox from Port Everglades — for revenue cruises.

CDC further revises guidance for cruise industry

The director of the maritime division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said passengers could be boarding cruise ships in U.S. ports as soon as July. It all depends on how many people get vaccinated, how well COVID-19 variants can be kept at bay, and how fast cruise companies can secure agreements with local ports and health authorities in the cities they plan to visit, said CDC’s Martin Cetron in an interview. Passengers have not boarded cruise ships in the U.S. since mid-March 2020, when the industry shut down following COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple ships. In recent weeks the cruise industry has dialed up its pressure on the CDC to allow for cruises to resume, citing July as a target. Cetron doesn’t think cruise companies are that far off, but it’s going to take some work to get there, and a lot of things have to go right, he said. There’s a lot to be hopeful about. More than one-third of U.S. adults has received the COVID-19 vaccine, which so far appears to be effective against more deadly COVID-19 variants. But Cetron cautions that the U.S. is still at the beginning of a vaccine supply and distribution race against known variants and those still being defined. “The caveat is if I’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s that it’s hard to predict three weeks in advance — much less three months,” he said. “In an ideal setting where we don’t have an overwhelming fourth wave of variants that are unresponsive to our mitigation strategies, that if all things go well as planned…I think with following the guidance we laid out we can all probably get to a place of partial resumption of sailing in July.” Under the CDC’s “conditional sail order,” cruise company executives must now pen agreements with the highest ranking officials of the ports and health authorities where they plan to visit. Those agreements should include routine processes — such as cruise terminal cleaning procedures — and worst-case scenario evacuation and hospitalization plans. Those agreements must then be submitted to the CDC for its approval before simulated cruises can begin, and then eventually the real thing. But cruise companies would rather skip right to the cruising. In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky April 5, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said the company’s new vaccination requirement for all passengers and crew, combined with enhanced protocols like tests before boarding and bigger medical teams on board, are sufficient given the CDC’s new guidance that vaccinated people can resume air travel. Still the CDC’s Level 4 warning against cruise travel — the agency’s highest — remains in place. “(Air travel) is a shorter journey compared to spending a week day and night in a hospitality based industry in which the air handling environment isn’t exactly the same,” said Cetron. “It’s meals multiple times a day together, buffets, rooms, mixed crowds between the crew and the passengers, and the types of sleeping arrangements for the crew is very different than it is for passengers. So it’s a different setting, and of course this pandemic has taught us the risk of certain settings is different than others. Each of them has to be considered in the context of those environments.” In most cases, the protocols touted by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and used by its competitors on cruises in other parts of the world during the pandemic are in line with those outlined by the CDC. Both promote cruising with fewer passengers, eliminating self-serve buffets, and requiring passengers and crew wear masks. But when it comes to testing, the two differ. Norwegian said it will require passengers to provide proof of a negative antigen test before boarding; the CDC said it will require companies to test all passengers and crew using PCR tests on embarkation and debarkation day. Cruise Lines International Association called the CDC’s rules for port agreements “unduly burdensome, largely unworkable” in a statement April 5. Cruises have long resumed in other parts of the world including Singapore, China and Italy, hosting nearly 400,000 passengers since the pandemic began with minimal COVID-19 cases, according to CLIA. More cruise lines will choose to scrap plans to cruise from U.S. ports in favor of the Caribbean ports, CLIA warned. On April 6, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced it will operate seven-day Caribbean itineraries from Montego Bay, Jamaica, starting on Aug. 7, 2021 on its Norwegian Joy ship and from La Romana, Dominican Republic, on its Norwegian Gem ship starting Aug. 15, 2021. Royal Caribbean Group and Crystal Cruises already have plans in place to restart cruises from The Bahamas and St. Maarten this summer. Cetron’s advice to U.S. citizens planning to fly to the Caribbean for a summer cruise: “I would say hold on. We’re really getting our best tools in place right now. Getting all Americans vaccinated is a game changer in this pandemic. I know that it’s really hard and I know pandemic fatigue is real; people just want out. We are so close. Give us some time.” More time is difficult to imagine for Torin Ragin, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1416, which represents nearly 800 workers at PortMiami. Since the pandemic began, working hours on the cruise ship side of the port have plummeted. Hundreds of longshoremen are at risk of losing their medical insurance coverage in January 2022 unless they can work 700 hours by the end of September, an impossible task without the return of cruising. “It’s the continued uncertainty after uncertainty after uncertainty,” he said. “It’s real. I see the faces; I get the calls; I’m on ground zero of this thing. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep people safe.” After the CDC approves cruise company agreements with ports and local health authorities, companies will practice simulated voyages to make sure the health and safety protocols are working. Requirements for the simulated passenger voyages are under development, a spokesperson for the CDC said, and will be published in the next few weeks. After the simulated voyages, companies will be approved to operate during the pandemic. Cetron is confident the agency’s rules will reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and make cruises safer. “Let’s get these things up and going, let’s beat this virus, and then I think people will really be able to enjoy the things they’ve been missing for the last year,” he said.

Cruise bookings continue even amid cancelations

Royal Caribbean Group is seeing an increase in bookings as the company nears the one-year mark without any cruises in the U.S., its biggest market. Despite U.S. cruises being banned indefinitely, Royal Caribbean Group executives said the company has seen a 30 percent increase in future bookings since the start of the year compared to November and December. Royal Caribbean Group has canceled all U.S. cruises until at least May. The booking increase is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak business update. The second largest cruise company in the world reported a net loss for the fourth quarter of 2020 of $1.4 billion, or $6.09 per share, compared to a net income of $273.1 million, or $1.30 per share, during the fourth quarter of 2019. It was Royal Caribbean Group’s fourth straight 10-figure quarterly loss To cut costs, the company has divested of five ships — three of them through the recent sale of the Azamara cruise line. Still, Royal Caribbean is operating at about a $250 million to 290 million monthly cash burn rate for its existing lines: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea. One of its ships, Quantum of the Seas, is operating with passengers in Singapore. So when will U.S. cruises be up and running again? It’s too soon to say, according to executives. “We are really in an interim period where the vaccines are still relatively new,” said Chairman Richard Fain. “They’re coming out amazingly quickly, but it will take months to get huge numbers of people vaccinated. We and the CDC and governments around the world are looking at how that will change (cruising). We don’t have answers yet.” Last year, Royal Caribbean Group hired a panel of health experts, including several former staff of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to come up with protocols to safely cruise during a pandemic. Subsequent guidance from the CDC, part of requirements cruise companies must meet before they can start operating again, outlined stricter testing. Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is in play, those protocols will have to be altered, said CEO of Royal Caribbean International Michael Bayley. “As we continue to see infections decline and vaccinations increase, we’re going to move to some sort of protocol that is a hybrid of vaccine and testing,” he said. The company is still waiting on the next phase of technical instructions from the CDC governing agreements between companies and ports to avoid the chaos that played out last spring when ports turned away cruise ships carrying infected and dead passengers and crew. “Our dialogue is productive,” said Bayley of conversations with the CDC. “They’ve assured us that when these indicators start to move in a positive way, they’ll start working with us to get us back into operation.” Last week Royal Caribbean Group announced it will be requiring all crew members to be vaccinated before cruises restart. Bayley said that the company surveyed 70,000 crew members about this last week, and received 32,000 responses in the first few hours; 98 percent of respondents so far have said they are in favor of the vaccine mandate for crew and 4,000 have already been vaccinated in their home countries.

Carnival CEO: Enough cash to endure 12 more cruise-less months

Carnival Corp. has enough cash to survive a cruise-less 2021, CEO Arnold Donald told investors Jan. 11. The company reported a net loss of $2.2 billion during the final quarter of 2020 but ended the year with $9.5 billion in liquidity, enough to endure at least 12 more months without cruises, Donald said. To tighten supply, the company has divested of 15 ships from its pre-pandemic fleet of 105, and plans to bid farewell to four more in the coming weeks. “I’m glad to put 2020 behind us,” Donald said. “It proved to be a true testament to the resilience of our company.” The company has returned 30 of its ships to U.S. waters since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted its months-long no-sail order in October, replacing it with requirements cruise companies need to meet in order to resume passenger cruises. Carnival Corp. had removed all of its ships from U.S. waters — and CDC oversight — in June. Ships in U.S. waters are required to test crewmembers for COVID-19 weekly and report results to the CDC. Donald said the company is still awaiting guidelines from the public health agency about when and how it will operate test cruises, one of the next requirements. Last year Carnival Corp. cruise lines Costa Cruises and AIDA resumed passenger operations in Europe; both canceled sailings late last year as COVID-19 cases spiked and countries went back into lockdown. Donald said he hopes all of Carnival Corp.’s ships will be operating by the end of 2021. While details regarding cruising’s resumption are still unknown, Donald said demand from past cruisers remains strong. Cumulative advanced bookings for the second half of 2021 are within the historical range, according to the company, and the cumulative advanced bookings for the first half of 2022 are ahead of 2019. “Whether we start sailing in April or March or June or whenever, the real value in this business extends for many years,” Donald said. “Eventually we will all be back to the great days of growth in our industry, earnings growth and cash generation. A matter of a couple of months here and there are not determining the future value of the industry.”

Carnival’s plan to resume US cruises on Dec. 1 remains on track after ruling

MIAMI — Carnival Corp. is still on track to resume cruises in the U.S. on Dec. 1 after a favorable ruling from a federal judge Oct. 21. The company, on probation since 2017 after pleading guilty to dumping oil into the ocean for several years, will have to attest to the environmental protection status of each of the company’s cruise ships 30 days before they reenter U.S. waters to restart cruises, according to the order from U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida Patricia Seitz. Carnival Corp. successfully fended off a stricter order proposed by the judge at a hearing on Oct. 23 that would have required ships to get her approval 60 days before reentering U.S. waters — which would have essentially derailed its plans to restart cruises from PortMiami and Port Canaveral on Dec. 1. For ships returning to U.S. waters before Dec. 31, the company can file its certification up to seven days after returning, Wednesday’s order said. In June, Carnival Corp. removed all of its ships from U.S. waters, partly due to a disagreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to best mitigate COVID-19 spread on board. The CDC banned cruises in mid-March amid COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple cruise ships, and their current ban remains in effect until Oct. 31. Now, as the company brings ships back, CEO Arnold Donald will have to notify the court of the status of each ship’s pollution prevention equipment, spare parts, staffing, voyage planning software, and vetting of shore-side waste vendors, creating an extra hurdle for Carnival Corp. ships to resume cruises. If any of the items are incomplete, Donald will have to provide a plan and timeline for addressing the outstanding problem. At a hearing last week, Seitz said those five items had been consistent problems for the company over its three years of probation, causing multiple violations of national and international environmental laws. Based on the company’s certification of the status of these items, Seitz said she would determine whether the ships could reenter U.S. waters or not. The Oct. 21 order does not require the company to get her approval, but says she can order further review if necessary. “I have tried to make sure we are balancing constantly the interests of the community and the environment in which the company operates and the needs of the defendant,” she said during the Friday hearing. Roger Frizzell, a spokesperson for the company, said it will be complying with the order going forward. “We continue to make strong progress on our efforts tied to compliance and environmental protection across the company,” he said in an email. “This will be one more action that supports our goal for continuous improvement in these two critically important areas.” Carnival Corp. has been on probation since April 2017 after pleading guilty to environmental crimes — dumping oily waste into the ocean for a period of eight years from its Princess Cruises ships — and paying a $40 million fine. In June 2019, the company pleaded guilty again to violating probation, paid a $20 million fine and agreed to more strict oversight during its remaining years on probation.

‘A bump in the road’: Cruise CEOs confident cruises will resume in US in 2020

Cruise CEOs say they are confident their companies will rebound after the worst seven months in the industry’s history. At the annual SeaTrade Cruise conference, held virtually this year, the leaders of Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises expressed optimism about the state of the industry. The executives said they anticipate a cruising comeback in the U.S. soon and again urged U.S. health authorities to give them an opportunity to prove cruising can be done safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is a bump in the road,” said Frank del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. “We will not cruise until we believe it’s 100 percent safe to cruise. It’s coming soon. Whether it’s Dec. 22 or Jan. 3, I think we’re in the ballpark. If a couple of things go our way, we could be sailing again soon.” SeaTrade originally planned to hold the conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center in April, but had to reschedule for a virtual conference this week. The CEOs said they are optimistic cruises will resume in the U.S., the industry’s most lucrative market, this year thanks to a solid base of unwavering cruise fans and a commitment from the companies to test all passengers before boarding. They did not say what kind of tests will be used or when passengers will be tested. A panel of health experts hired by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings previously recommended companies test passengers between five days and 24 hours before boarding. Cruise companies hope testing will create a controlled environment, limiting the risk of the virus getting on board. Even so, as the virus continues to spread on land, it will likely spread at sea, said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald. Companies are working to beef up medical centers and procedures to isolate people so that those who fall ill can be treated. “There’s no perfect system to prevent it,” said Donald. “We’ve spent an enormous amount of time on what happens if there’s a case on board.” Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain said the company would likely start with what he called “test cruises” and then build up slowly to short cruises. “I do think that’s going to start this year,” he said. Carnival Corp. and MSC Cruises resumed cruises in Italy in September, available only to Italians. Donald and MSC Cruises CEO Pierfrancesco Vago said they are receiving high satisfaction feedback from customers so far. “We have a huge base of previous cruise goers,” Donald said. “I don’t think the industry is going to be faced with a long-term challenge here.” The display of confidence comes less than a week after the White House blocked the CDC from banning cruises until February 2021, as it had planned to do. Instead, the agency’s no-sail order extended just until Oct. 31, paving the way for cruises to resume as soon as November without another extension. Carnival Cruise Line has canceled all U.S. cruises through December, except for cruises leaving from PortMiami and Port Canaveral, which are on track to start on Nov. 1. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings canceled all cruises until December. Royal Caribbean Group is still selling cruises for November. Virgin Voyages and Disney Cruise Line are selling December cruises. Del Rio said it will take his company at least 60 days to bring a ship from laid-up status to ready to operate passenger cruises. Donald has previously said it will take Carnival Corp. 30 days. The industry first shut down on March 13 amid COVID-19 outbreaks on several ships. Since then, the CDC has repeatedly extended its ban on cruising in U.S. waters as companies have struggled to prevent outbreaks among crew after repatriating all passengers. At least 111 passengers and crew have died from COVID-19, and the virus has affected at least 87 ships — 34 percent of the global fleet — according to an investigation by the Miami Herald. Since March, cruise companies have endured record financial losses and layoffs. People in the U.S. whose work supports the industry, like longshoremen and travel agents, have had their hours cut or their jobs eliminated entirely. Initially, those workers received unemployment assistance from the state and federal government. Now, those who are unemployed in Florida are getting a maximum of $275 per week after the state cut federal assistance and another relief bill remains stalled in Congress. Cruise companies, which are incorporated abroad and flag their ships abroad, were not eligible for direct federal aid, but they have been able to borrow at reduced rates with aid to the Federal Reserve. Throughout the fall and summer, border restrictions and expensive travel mandates caused a months-long delay in repatriating thousands of crew members, whom companies stopped paying after halting passenger cruises. Some crew members are still at sea without pay waiting to be sent home. Workers continue to contract COVID-19 on laid-up ships. Industry executives had planned to meet with Vice President Pence on Oct. 2 to discuss plans to resume cruises, but the White House canceled the meeting after President Donald Trump and several others in the administration tested positive for COVID-19. Donald did not say when the meeting will be rescheduled. “We’re collaborating with everyone, there’s constant dialogue with various parties,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

Cruise industry offers ideas to allow resumed sailings

Cruise companies are stepping up their pressure on U.S. health authorities to allow them to cruise again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 21, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings submitted health and safety protocols to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the agency’s request for public comments about how to safely resume cruises. The protocols include testing all passengers and crew for COVID-19 before boarding, requiring masks and expanding medical capabilities on cruise ships. The cruise industry’s lobbying group, Cruise Lines International Association, sent a separate, less-specific list of recommendations to the CDC on Sept. 21, vowing that all cruise companies will require testing before boarding, masks and social distancing; improve ventilation and medical capabilities; and limit shore excursions. Sept. 21 was the final day to submit public comments to the CDC about cruising during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC has banned cruises in the U.S. until Oct. 1, and most cruise lines have said they will not resume cruises until at least Oct. 31. “We’ve learned a lot in six months,” said Royal Caribbean Group Chairman Richard Fain. “Our job was to find a way going forward to learn from the past, and not to repeat it.” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said it was “absolutely” safe to resume cruises again, citing the announced protocols. “There is not one silver bullet,” he said. “It’s layer on top of layer on top of layer … We’re going to test it, make adjustments along the way.” A spokesperson for the CDC said the agency has not requested plans to resume passenger cruises from the companies. “Currently, CDC does not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume passenger operations,” the spokesperson said in an email. “CDC will continue to work with cruise lines to ensure that all necessary public health procedures are in place before cruise lines begin sailing with passengers.” Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said it typically takes 30 days to get a laid-up ship running again. The 74 recommended protocols submitted to the CDC on Sept. 21 by Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings were hashed out by a panel of experts, including several that used to work for the CDC. The panel said it is impossible to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 spread at sea, but with their recommendations, that risk can be minimized. The panel did not determine an infection threshold on land that would make it safe to resume cruises but instead focused on what companies can do to bolster health and safety on ships. “Getting down to zero risk is not likely,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who chaired the Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings panel. “Therefore we have to have the component of mitigating spread and ability to respond.” Some of the recommendations include: • All passengers should be tested for COVID-19 between five days and 24 hours prior to boarding • Crew should be tested in their home countries before leaving to join a ship and then again at the end of a seven-day on board quarantine period, ideally using PCR tests. • Both passengers and crew should have their temperatures taken daily. • Cruise companies should visit only ports that agree to evacuate and repatriate sick people on board. • All ship heating and air-conditioning systems should be upgraded to MERV 13 filters, similar to those used by hospitals. • Ships should lower doctor-to-passenger ratios on board. • Crew should live in single cabins whenever possible and be allowed limited shore leave. • Passengers who don’t attest that they agree to protocols not be allowed to cruise. A protocol that was floated in March as cruise companies scrambled to try to avert a shutdown was barring passengers over 70 years old, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. That was scrapped by the panel. Passengers who are at higher risk will instead be advised to consult with their doctors before cruising. Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise company in the world, endorsed the CLIA proposals, which include testing; that’s already being conducted on its Costa Cruises ships in Italy. “This has been probably the most difficult period in our industry’s 50 year history,” said CEO Donald. “We are on a path with the industry to resume cruise operations in the U.S. using the knowledge from our advisors and in full cooperation with the authorities.” Preventing COVID-19 spread on cruise ships is exceptionally difficult, health experts say. At least 110 passengers and crewmembers have died from COVID-19, at least 38 in Florida, according to a Miami Herald investigation, and at least 86 ships have been affected — approximately one-third of the global cruise fleet. Cruise companies have struggled to contain COVID-19 outbreaks among crew members on their ships during the industry’s pause. On several occasions, even after months of isolation at sea, crew members tested positive upon returning to their home countries. CDC data obtained by the Miami Herald via a Freedom of Information Act request shows at least seven ships in U.S. waters during the month of August reported COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses to the CDC that month. Carnival Corporation and Virgin Voyages pulled their ships out of U.S. waters in June and are no longer reporting illnesses to the agency. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is reporting from just three of its ships.

‘Enough is enough’: Commissioners and execs urge CDC to let cruising resume

MIAMI — Five months after South Florida became a hotbed for COVID-19 cruise outbreaks, Miami-Dade commissioners and cruise executives are urging the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give the cruise industry the OK to restart sailings as soon as possible. At a Sept. 10 virtual tourism and ports committee meeting, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa scolded the federal health agency charged with the country’s public health response to COVID-19, saying it has been too slow to communicate with the industry and must work quickly to get cruising up and running again. The deadly virus continues to claim thousands of American lives every week. “The problem is it’s not fair that the CDC is not paying attention and communicating with the cruise industry,” Sosa said, citing the time between when cruise companies submitted plans to the agency regarding how to mitigate COVID-19 spread among crew in mid-April and the finalizing of those plans in late July. “We cannot wait another 14 weeks.” The meeting, which included packaged videos promoting the cruise industry and live shots with cruise CEOs, did not touch on safety concerns. Commissioners didn’t ask executives for details about how to avoid the disease spread and complications that left hundreds of passengers at sea for weeks and the Coast Guard overwhelmed by medevac requests. The CDC first banned cruises in the U.S. in mid-March amid COVID-19 outbreaks on several ships. The following six months have been marred by disagreements between the industry and the agency. During the ban on cruising, companies have suffered record financial losses and had to lay off large numbers of staff. Thousands of people who support the industry, including longshoremen, shuttle drivers, industry vendors and travel agents, remain out of work. The CDC has banned cruises in the U.S. until at least Oct. 1; most companies have said they will not resume cruises in the U.S. until at least Oct 31. Sosa and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said cruise ships are no more dangerous than hotels or airplanes. That claim has been refuted by the CDC, which has repeatedly noted the unique challenge in preventing COVID-19 spread at sea. “A cruise is a hotel in the middle of the ocean that the doors and windows open all the time, and we have an incredible amount of wind coming in and out making it a safer place,” said Sosa. Said Del Rio, “It’s unconscionable what’s happened to the cruise industry. We’ve been quiet for too long.” Two cruise companies with U.S. headquarters in Miami started cruises again in Italy this month: Carnival Corp., with its Costa Cruises brand, and MSC Cruises. The cruises are only available for Italian passengers and all passengers and crew are undergoing COVID-19 rapid antigen tests before boarding. Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said he expects the company’s AIDA brand to begin cruises in Germany soon. Del Rio said Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings will be submitting its health protocol proposal, created in conjunction with Royal Caribbean Group, to the CDC within the next 10 days. “We’ve got to get to work,” he said. “Enough is enough. It’s been more than six months. We’ve learned a lot.” At odds with CDC In its most recent no-sail order, the CDC said it spent 38,000 man-hours working to manage the COVID-19 crisis on cruise ships as of July 10. After the CDC first warned the public to avoid cruise travel because of the increased risk of COVID-19 spread on March 8, cruise companies continued to operate. Nervous passengers boarded cruises after the CDC warning because companies were not offering refunds. Companies did not screen disembarking passengers at PortMiami, in some cases after learning about previous passengers who had tested positive. On March 13, the industry announced it was canceling all U.S. cruises. The CDC issued its industry-wide no-sail order the next day. In March and April, several ships still carrying passengers became trapped at sea with nowhere to dock and eventually found refuge in Florida ports where dozens of passengers and crew were evacuated; some died on board before the ships arrived, others died in South Florida hospitals. At least 110 passengers and crew members have died from COVID-19, at least 38 in Florida, according to a Miami Herald investigation, and at least 86 ships have been affected, or approximately one-third of the global cruise fleet. In April, seven cruise companies submitted plans to the CDC detailing how they would protect crew from the virus while the ships were out of service. The CDC said the plans largely failed to meet the agency’s requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and staffed two people to work with each company on redrafting the plans. Norwegian Cruise Line continued to house crew in shared cabins with shared bathrooms until July, according to the agency, and took more than two weeks to sign the required form confirming it has a complete and accurate plan. Most companies needed two revisions to their plans before they were deemed complete; one needed seven, the agency said. In the interim, the CDC said cruise companies would be allowed to repatriate crew members through the U.S. using private transportation if their executives signed an agreement with the agency assuming responsibility for following all health protocols, like requiring traveling crew to wear masks. Royal Caribbean told its crew that the CDC had banned all crew repatriation, delaying sending them home. After the Herald reported the company knew the CDC was allowing for repatriation on private transportation, the company reversed and signed the required agreements. In June, the CDC unveiled a grading system for cruise ships based on their level of infection. Ships with complete plans for preventing COVID-19 spread and no COVID-19 cases within 28 days can repatriate crew using public transportation. The only cruise company to have a complete plan at that time was Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line. Crew continue to contract COVID-19 aboard laid-up ships, according to CDC data obtained by the Miami Herald via a Freedom of Information Act request. At least seven ships in U.S. waters during the month of August reported COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses to the CDC that month. Carnival Corp. pulled its ships out of U.S. waters before the grading system debuted, in part because it disagreed with the agency’s requirement that asymptomatic crew members remain in their cabins as much as possible. Virgin Voyages pulled its ship out the following week. Disney Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have now pulled most of their ships out of U.S. waters. Ships outside U.S. waters are no longer required to report illnesses to the CDC. Hundreds of crew members are still stuck on cruise ships without pay, waiting to be repatriated. A spokesperson for Carnival Corp. said it still had 400 crew to repatriate at the start of this week, after sending home 80,000. A spokesperson for MSC Cruises said it still has around 700 waiting to go home, after repatriating more than 17,800. A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Group said as of July 17 the company still had 2,815 people to repatriate and did not provide an update. Spokespeople for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings did not respond to a request for comment.
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