Yesterday’s zoom meeting for the tourism and ports committee brought executives for the major cruise lines together with Miami-Dade commissioners. Agenda item number one involved Miami-Dade County Tourism and Ports Committee Chair Rebeca Sosa discussing the “opening plan for the cruise line.”

The problem, of course, is that none of the Miami-based cruise lines in attendance have submitted any proposed updated health and safety plans to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the CDC to even consider.

During the meeting, commissioner Sosa berated and scolded the CDC, telling the federal agency to “… listen to the plans, correct the plans …”  Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCL)’s CEO Frank Del Rio (above, second from left), who was the most vocal critic of the CDC at the virtual meeting, promised that NCL would submit its health protocol proposal, in conjunction with Royal Caribbean Group, to the CDC “within the next 10 days.”

Commissioner Sosa mentioned that the cruise lines were “working on” what she somehow characterized as a “safe, most-comprehensive plan at the excess of possibility.” She did not address the fact that the cruise lines have had six months to develop the long-awaited plans. Ms. Sosa praised the cruise lines and noted that NCL and Royal Caribbean hired a number of experts to develop the joint health protocols. She apparently did not realize that one expert on the cruise lines’ “Healthy Sail Panel” was the former head of the FDA, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who said in early March, before he was paid by the cruise lines, that “I don’t think anybody should be taking a cruise right now … this is a very sticky pathogen.” The doctor explained last March 9th, that once it gets inside a closed space such as a cruise ship, it spreads widely. He gave the Diamond Princess cruise ship as an example of the wide-spread of COVID-19, where more than 700 people were infected and over a dozen people subsequently died. “It’s an awful risk to pack a lot of people on a cruise ship,” Dr. Gottlieb said.

Commissioner Sosa also falsely claimed that the cruise lines have been “safely sailing in Europe for the past month with all regulations without any problems.” 

The truth is that COVID-19 has plagued cruise ship operations in Europe ever since they restarted. Last month, 29 passengers and 42 employees were confirmed positive with COVID-19 on Hurtigruten’s MS Roald Amundsen. A guest and his wife aboard a second Hurtigruten cruise ship, the MS Fridtjof Nansen, also contracted the virus. The cruise ship permitted the couple to return home where the husband died.  Passengers and crew members on board the SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I were quarantined after a passenger tested positive for COVID-19 in August. In July and August, ten crew members employed by Carnival-owned AIDA Cruises tested positive for COVID-19. Five crew members working for TUI / Mein Schiff tested positive which required the cancelation of a cruise on the Mein Schiff 1. You can read accounts of these cases here. Nine Costa crew members on the Costa Favolosa and Costa Deliziosa tested positive.

MSC Cruise has experienced some success in Europe with its health protocols when pre-boarding testing revealed that five guests who intended to board the MSC Grandiosa tested positive for the virus. They were denied boarding at the gangway. But other cruise lines in Europe do not require COVID-19 tests, such as CroisiEurope river cruise ships where at least seven passengers and crew members tested positive just this week. Sixty-five other guests departed from the ship and returned to their countries (France, Belgium and Switzerland), according to the Portuguese newspaper Expresso. These passengers need to be tested for the virus. A week ago, a DJ aboard the Royal Caribbean owned Silver Spirit tested positive for COVID-19 during a Red Sea cruise which resulted in the cancellation of the cruise. Over 400 crew members are now waiting test results.

All of these cruises were expected to “test the waters,” so to speak, before the larger U.S. cruise lines were to resume cruises out of U.S. ports. All of these companies touted their health protocols and promised that their top priorities were the health and safety of their passengers and crew members. But the reality is that the protocols, which differ from cruise line to cruise line, still permitted over 100 passengers and crew members on cruise ships in Europe, to be infected with the virus (with 400 crew members on the Silver Spirit alone awaiting their test results and 65 guests from the CroisiEurope river cruise ship who need to be tested ). In addition, the Miami Herald just reported today that “at least 7 ships in U.S. waters reported COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses to the CDC in August.”

CEO Del Rio dramatically claimed during the meeting that the “cruise industry is close to devastation.” But in early May when there were reports that NCL may be forced to consider Chapter 11 reorganization, Del Rio downplayed the possibility of bankruptcy and said that the company could survive for an additional 18 months without income. But during the meeting he stressed that “we’ve got to get to work, commissioner. Enough is enough, he said, claiming that “it will be safe to cruise from America.”

Del Rio argued that although the CDC’s no-sail order has shut down cruises from leaving U.S. ports since March “yet we see airlines flying. I want someone to tell me how it’s possible that COVID-19 doesn’t occur on an airplane when you’re sitting four inches away from a person . . . ”  This is an argument commonly made by the cruise line and many travel agents.

The CDC has already explained that the confined space and density of cruise ships and other unique characteristics of cruise operations led to the exacerbation and spread of COVID-19 across the world.  The reference to travel by aircraft is particularly misleading: A flight from Miami to Atlanta, for example, is a little less than two hours. A flight to New York is less than three hours. Contrast that to a one-week cruise, which lasts around 168 hours, and potentially involves exposure to several thousands of other guests and ship employees on the ship. And regardless travel by cruise ship is completely voluntary and recreational in nature.

Cruise Industry News quoted CEO Del Rio as saying that “all we’re asking is opportunity to demonstrate that we take COVID19 very very seriously.” Unfortunately, NCL in particular has demonstrated little concern for the CDC’s guidelines over the last six months. 

Like many other cruise lines, NCL has directed its fleet of cruise ships to leave U.S. waters in order to avoid any obligation to comply with the CDC’s jurisdiction.

Del Rio proclaimed  during the zoom meeting that “we’ve been quiet for too long,” but he has been the most vocal in the past, claiming that “cruise restrictions should immediately stop” as early as May. Remarkably, Del Rio stated months ago that “people are rushing to bars and restaurants as they reopen, they want to get back to their normal lives, and cruising is a part of their normal lives.” Del Rio seems to believe that disregarding the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing and the wearing of masks is a good thing rather than a major problem that needs to be discouraged.

Ironically, NCL permitted its crew members to crowd together without masks during several parties earlier this month on the Norwegian Escape (above right) and Norwegian Epic (left) at the port of Miami. In an article titled “Ridiculously Overcrowded” Norwegian Escape Sails to Miami, we noted that after NCL assembled employees from several different NCL ships aboard the Norwegian Escape which sailed to Miami, the cruise line scheduled a series of parties on the pool decks of several of its ships. It made no effort to enforce social distancing or the wearing of masks.

Hundreds of NCL crew members and dozens of officers openly mingled and crowded around bars on the pool deck of the NCL ship without masks. (We also posted a video of a crowded pool party in our article Norwegian Epic – the Latest NCL Cruise Ship to Ignore the CDC’s Social Distancing Rule). NCL also ignored the CDC’s requirements that crew members be assigned separate cabins with balconies. NCL required its ship employees to double up in windowless cabins. This was reckless and a clear violation of the CDC’s guidelines.

No one during the virtual meeting asked the cruise lines any questions about their health protocols or how the lines intended to avoid the ongoing problems which the European cruise market is experiencing.

The cruise lines have demonstrated a consistently uncooperative if not hostile attitude toward the CDC since March. The COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is neither a hoax nor an exaggeration as the most vociferous cruise CEO would have you believe. COVID-19 continues at a daily rate of around 40,000 newly infected and over 1,000 dead in the U.S. Short of a tested and effective vaccine, cruising during a pandemic is nothing short of reckless and irresponsible. The spectacle of a misinformed and powerless county commissioner berating federal epidemiologists, public health specialists and scientists at the CDC may please frustrated cruise fans and some travel agents but it is a sign, unfortunately, of more disease and death to come.

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Image credits: Cruise Executives – Seatrade Cruise News; Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Ecape crew parties – anonymous crew member.