Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) extended its “No-Sail Order” until October 1st after finding that the cruise lines “continued to allow their crews to attend social gatherings, work out at gyms, and share buffet-style meals,” according to the New York Times. The CDC concluded that Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and Royal Caribbean  violated “basic protocols designed to stop the spread of the highly transmissible virus,” as explained in what the Times referred to as a “scathing” 20-page order which you can read here.

Cruise Fans Accuse the CDC of Picking on the Cruise Lines

On our Cruise Law News home page on Facebook, several hundred cruise fans wanting to return to cruising expressed anger at the agency for extending the “No-Sail” order.  Many crew members, who are understandably upset because they need to return to work, also expressed their frustration over the development. Most people felt that cruise lines were unfairly being singled out when the airlines pack passengers into crowded airplanes and people congregate in bars and restaurants without masks in some states.

More Contact Tracing Than All Airline Outbreaks Since the Pandemic Began

The CDC recent order states that the agency spent at least 38,000 hours managing the coronavirus crisis. Public health authorities performed contact tracing for 11,000 passengers, more than the number of contacts identified from COVID-19 outbreaks from airplane flights.

Cruise Lines’ COVID-19 Response Plans Incomplete and Inadequate 

The CDC found the cruise lines’ proposed plans to comply with the extension of the agency’s April 15th No-Sail Order (NSO) to be incomplete and inadequate. By July 10th only one cruise line (Bahamas Paradise), which operates just one cruise ship in U.S. waters, had submitted a response plan which complied with the CDC’s requirements in its extended NSO.

Substantial, Ongoing Failure to Comply with the CDC

The CDC provided numerous examples of the cruise industry’s substantial, ongoing non-compliance with the extended NSO.

The CDC found that numerous cruise ships were:

  • Not exercising social distancing or requiring the wearing of masks.
  • Not placing crew in single cabins with private bathrooms.
  • Not closing crew bars, gyms and public spaces.
  • Illegally making crew transfers from ships with sick crew.

The CDC sent a letter to all cruise lines requesting that they respond to the agency’s concerns. Only Royal Caribbean and Virgin Voyages bothered to respond.

The CDC then sent a letter raising specific dates on non-compliance on several ships operated under the Norwegian Cruise Line Holding’s umbrella, namely the Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Joy, Oceania Marine and Seven Seas Voyager.

The NCL ships were clearly ignoring the CDC’s guidelines with large crew parties on the open decks where the crew mingled closely together without masks. Other crew members were forced to stay in cabins with other crew members and without private bathrooms. Our firm posted videos and photographs taken by crew members on the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Epic in articles we posted in early May, titled “Ridiculously Overcrowded” Norwegian Escape Sails to Miami and Norwegian Epic – the Latest NCL Cruise Ship to Ignore the CDC’s Social Distancing Rule.

NCL initially ignored the CDC’s concerns and finally responded only after the CDC sent two additional letters demanding compliance.

Inadequate Testing – Crew Members Test Positive After a Month on Ships

Many cruise lines have not conducted random periodic testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic crew members as recommended by the CDC. The agency mentioned that on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, and Adventure of the Seas, the company failed to conduct such testing. As a result, these four ships reported no confirmed COVID-19 cases for twenty-eight days or longer. However, when the crew members’ home countries tested them when they were finally repatriated, 55 crew members tested positive for COVID0-19.  This problem exists through the cruise industry’s fleet of cruise ships; less than 40% of ships operating or planning to operate in U.S. waters had tested for COVID-19.

Exacerbation of Spread of An Already Highly Infectious Disease

CDC Director Robert Redfield blamed the cruise lines for “widespread transmission of the virus,” stating that from “March 1 until July 10, 80 percent of the ships in the C.D.C.’s jurisdiction were affected by the coronavirus.” The CDC confirmed that there were approximately 3,000 cases of infections and 34 deaths on ships in U.S. waters during this time period.

Director Redfield pointed to the numerous cases of confirmed/probable cases of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships after April 15th:

  • Disney Wonder, which earlier had a coronavirus outbreak which claimed the lives of several passengers, had over 270 COVID-19 and COVID-like illnesses among its crew members in April, May and June; the CDC criticized the Disney ship for inadequate spacing and mixing of stateroom for “sick” and “well” crew members.
  • Celebrity Eclipse – 100 confirmed/probable COVID-19 or COVID-like cases.
  • Coral Princess – 136 conformed/probable COVID-19 cases with 5 deaths.
  • Zandaam 33 confirmed/probable COVID-19 cases with 7 deaths.
  • Ruby Princess and Costa Luminosa – hundreds of COVID-19 (no officials count).

CDC: Cruise Ships Pose Higher Risk of Infection Than Cities

The CDC concluded that the current scientific evidence suggests that a cruise ship poses a greater risk of COVID-19 than other settings. “Cruise ship conditions,” according to the agency, “amplify an already highly transmittable disease.” The heightened rate of transmission is due to the high population density on a cruise ship, which is typically more densely populated than cities. Other factors likely contributing to transmission are crew living and working in close quarters in a partially enclosed environment where social distancing may be challenging, according to the CDC.

Director Redfield focused on an analysis on the Diamond Princess outbreak which was published in the Journal of Travel Medicine. This study showed that the basic reproduction rate, often called the transmission rate (Rt), on the ship was almost 15 (for each infection there was a transmission of COVID-19 to almost 15 others), which was over four times higher than the rate in Wuhan, China (the epicenter of the outbreak) which had a rate of 3.7.

The Cruise Industry is Continuing to Struggle With COVID-19

COVID-19 continues to devastate the cruise industry which finds itself without revenue and borrowing many billions of dollars to try and stay afloat. Incorporated in foreign (non-U.S.) countries, the cruise lines register its fleet of ship in feckless countries in order to avoid all U.S. taxes, U.S. wage and labor laws, and U.S. occupational health and safety regulations. The industry will have to respond to the CDC in a consistent manner – something that it has never been required to do before in its history on this scale. It will have to begrudgingly comply with the oversight of an U.S. agency which applies scientific principles to protect the health of the U.S. public.

Yes, the airlines should not be permitted to fly full such that there are passengers in every seat. Social distancing needs to be enforced across the airlines, hotels, restaurants and bars. But the CDC’S treatment of the cruise lines is not unreasonable just because people ashore are acting irresponsibly, particularly those selfish members of the public who refuse to wear masks.

One thing is certain. The cruise lines’ continued flouting of the CDC’s authority, as most vividly demonstrated by NCL on the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Epic, will cause only additional delay in the industry returning to cruising.

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