Two articles published today reveal the sorry state of affairs which crew members face on cruise ships during the COVID-19 pandemic.

100,000 Crew Members Trapped At Sea

The Guardian newspaper in London published an article revealing that there are more than 100,000 crew members still trapped on cruise ships (with at least 50 infected with Covid-19). They are shut out of ports and banned from air travel that would allow them to return to their homes. The article, titled “Revealed: 100,000 crew never made it off cruise ships amid coronavirus crisis,” states that “many of these crew are quarantined in tiny cabins, and some have had their pay cut off. They have effectively become a nation of floating castaways . . . ”

Our office has heard from several dozens of crew members who have expressed anxiety and fear as they remain on ships with no clear plan of if or how they will return home. AIS tracking systems like Marine Traffic (lower right) show over a hundred cruise ships off the coast of Florida or in Bahamian waters.

Cruise Executives Refuse to Sign Agreements Acknowledging Responsibility for Repatriating Crew

The second article, by Miami Herald reporter Taylor Dolven, reveals that cruise lines are in fact allowed to disembark and repatriate crew members still trapped on ships around the U.S. by private transportation as long as their executives sign an agreement with the U.S. CDC that holds the companies accountable for the costs of the repatriation process. The Herald, in an article titled “Cruise Companies Refuse CDC Terms to Repatriate Crew, Call Transport Too Expensive,” states that the cruise executives “are refusing to do so.”

The Herald writes that cruise lines must agree to safely repatriate and pay for each crew member to return home from the ships (this is consistent with the long standing, non-delegable obligations of maritime law). For each person who disembarks, the Herald states, the cruise lines’ Chief Medical Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Executive Officer must sign an agreement to these terms that says, “false or misleading statements or omissions may result in criminal and civil actions for fines, penalties, damages, and imprisonment.”

According to the Herald, cruise company officials have complained, in conversation with the CDC, that arranging private transportation for disembarking crew is “too expensive.”

Profits Over Poeple

The cruise industry, which rightfully has been criticized for placing profits over the safety of its crew members, is legally responsible for safely repatriating its ship employees home. It is a well established principle of maritime law that repatriation of ship employees is an absolute, non-delegable legal duty of the ship owners and operators. The CDC agreement, which the executives are refusing to sign, simply acknowledges this fundamental duty.

Many cruide lines are trying to avoid the costs of buying air tickets for their crew. They are delaying the repatriation process, hoping that the home counties of the crew members will volunteer to fly the ship employees home. Or the lines are consolidating their crew members onto ships with the intention of eventually sailing them home, even though crew members on some ships have tested positive for COVID-19. It is a far cheaper process for the company to bundle the crew together like pieces of freight, without pay and or access to shore-side medical treatment during a pandemic. This is nothing short of cruel.

The Cruise Industry is Continuing to Ignore the CDC

Unfortunately, there is a general disregard by the cruise industry of the authority of the U.S. CDC. The CDC previously ordered the suspension of all cruising from U.S. ports until at least July 24th, unless there is a change by the agency to an earlier date. Yet, not a single cruise line has agreed at this time to obey this order.

All cruise lines are also ignoring the clear findings of the scientists at the CDC who concluded that “cruise ship travel markedly increases the risk and impact of the COVID19 disease outbreak in the United States.” The CDC further found that cruising “exacerbates the global spread of COVID19” and that the cruise industry failed to control the spread of the disease sufficiently, causing an unnecessary burden on  already over-burdened local, state and national healthcare systems.  You can read the CDC’s latest finding here.

Its Time for the U.S. CDC, with the Backing of the DOJ, to Hold Cruise Lines Criminally Accountable

It’s time for the CDC, with the backing of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Transportation, to order the cruise industry to sign acknowledgments that they will be responsible for and pay for the repatriation of their crew without further delay.  Failing to obtain such written acknowledgments, the U.S. Department of Justice should proceed with the filing of criminal felony charges against the malevolent cruise companies and their executives who are recklessly endangering their crew members.

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April 30, 2020 Update:

The Miami Herald reporter who wrote the article about the cruise executives refusing to sign the acknowledgment states, via Twitter, that many cruise ship captains are announcing that the CDC is to blame for the refusal to repatriate the crew. This is false according to the CDC:

May 1, 2020 Update:

The Miami Herals reports that Royal Caribbean has been lying to its crew members about the CDC- Royal Caribbean falsely blames CDC for keeping crew trapped on its ships, agency says.

Photo credit: Top – Carnival Corporation; middle – Marine Traffic – dozens of cruise ships (in blue) in Bahamian waters.