The latest “no-sail” order (NSO) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to expire this weekend, on Saturday October 31st at midnight. There is an obvious scientific basis for the CDC to protect U.S citizens by extending the order for several months, as discussed below. The Director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, recommended last month that cruise ships be prohibited from sailing from U.S. port until  February, 15,  2021. But the White House overruled the CDC and extended the current NSO only until the end of this month, as AXIOS and the Miami Herald have reported.

The CDC will probably not extend the NSO until next year, although it clearly should do so, because of the political pressure and interference by the current administration. Yesterday Bloomberg discussed the intense lobbying being being performed by the cruise lines in Washington. Bloomberg writes that the Miami-based cruise lines have doubled the number of lobbyists they have sent to congressional offices and several federal agencies since the pandemic in order to lobby official to resume cruising this year. One of their favorites targets is the White House.

Propublica reported that the White House has essentially gutted the CDC and politicized the once renown public health agency and its premier doctors and scientists. Vice President Pence and CDC Director Redfield met in Florida with cruise executives in March. After Pence praised the industry’s “spirit of collaboration,” the chairman (former Royal Caribbean cruise executive Adam Goldstein) of the cruise industry’s largest trade group (CLIA) said, “Given the significance of travel and tourism, it is critical that Americans keep traveling.” The publication wrote that “employees watching in the CDC’s command center in Atlanta let out an audible groan . . .”

Propublica explained that CLIA had drafted a plan to hire a “global rescue team staffed by special-operations veterans” who would extract infected passengers and take them to medical facilities contracted to care for them “without burden on the U.S. government.”  Yet by April 6, the trade group didn’t hire the rescue company, and public health authorities was forced to  evacuate critically ill people from cruise ships in April. Health officials had to care for around 80,000 crew members on cruise ships in U.S. waters which further strained public health systems.

CDC officials exchanged emails stating that “poor planning by the industry, failure to adhere to recommendations and unsafe transport operations used by ships to get passengers and crew home has posed significant risks to local, state, national and international spread of the virus . . . dozens of vessels are still at sea with active COVID infections on board heading toward US waters requesting arrival in our ports.”

While the cruise lines have been meeting with their politician friends in Washington, the local Republican politicians in Florida have been working overtime to restart cruises from this state. Governor DeSantis has appeared at political rallies and stated this week that he “wants to see cruises sailing again and that he’s been in communication with the White House about how it could happen.” Senators Scott and Rubio have introduced legislation to try and bypass the CDC and permit the cruise executives greater control of health and pubic safety considerations surrounding the resumption of cruising. All of these politicians have adopted an “open the state up” mentality that has stressed business interests over issues of public health. Governor DeSantis has appeared at public political rallies without wearing a mask where he was filmed shaking hands and then rubbing his nose.

Last Wednesday, the CDC recommended that “travelers defer all cruise travel worldwide.”  The CDC issued a level 3 warning – “Avoid Nonessential Travel – Widespread Ongoing Transmission.”  Many people have suggested that this shows that the CDC is likely to renew its NSO for some period of time. My view, however, is that this is essentially a last ditch effort by the CDC to again warn the public that is unsafe to travel and congregate in bars, restaurants, night clubs and theaters, particularly on cruise ships with thousand of other guests and crew members. But it’s more likely, although not certain, that political shenanigans by the anti-science White House, which the cruise lines have lobbied for, will probably win the day.

This is perhaps the worst time possible for the White House to undermine the CDC. New COVID-19 cases are surging in the U.S. and Europe. The seven day average for coronavirus cases in the U.S. is over 74,000 following two consecutive days with cases over 83,000 (last Friday and Saturday). In the last week, there have been over 2,800,000 coronavirus cases reported worldwide and over 40,000 deaths.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA Chairman and co-chair of the joint RCL-NCL “Healthy Sail” panel said recently that the U.S. will experience a “difficult fall and winter” due to the expanding COVID-19 pandemic.  Dr. Gottlieb warned that “we’re still going to have a lot of death and disease by the end of the year.”

Dr. Gottlieb repeated his warnings yesterday and predicted that the number of cases will peak in the U.S. sometime after Thanksgiving.

Forbes reported this week that Chancellor (and scientist) Angela Merkel says that German officials have agreed to implement a four-week shutdown of restaurants, bars, theaters and clubs in hopes of containing coronavirus outbreaks that have led to a rapid rise in cases this month in Germany and throughout Europe.” France has instituted similar restrictions to combat the out of control virus.

Gene Sloan, the popular All Points Guy, reported yesterday that “new lockdown measures in Germany and France this week in the wake of soaring COVID-19 cases have forced at least a half-dozen ocean and river cruise lines to cancel sailings across the continent since Wednesday.” German line AIDA Cruises said yesterday that it would cancel all voyages through the end of November. Costa Cruises also cancelled a number of upcoming cruises, including sailings out of Italy to ports in Italy, France and Spain.

The major cruise lines have touted new health protocols in Europe but it’s widely under-reported that have been over 170 cruise guests and crew members infected on cruise ships on the continent. There have been three outbreaks on river cruise lines in the past two months where over 80 people were infected. 60 of the 92 passengers (two-thirds) who sailed on the river cruise ship MS Swiss Crystal were infected on a cruise on the Danube and Main within the last two weeks. In early September, eight guests and crew members on a CroisiEurope river cruise ship on the Douro River in Portugal tested positive for COVID-19. Last week, German newspapers reported that at least thirteen (13) people were infected on another river cruise ship, MS Vista Serenity, on the Moselle River in Germany.

In addition, 74 people were infected on Hurtigruten cruise ships including the MS Roald Amundsen (71) and MS Finnmarken (3 with one death). Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises also recently experienced outbreaks on their cruise ships. 8 people were infected on the Costa Diadema and eight people also tested positive on the MSC Grandiosa.

Gene Sloan reported just this morning that there is a COVID-19 outbreak on a Ponant cruise ship.

It is clear that confidence in cruising will continue to erode as more and more cruise ships experience coronavirus outbreaks:

Canada recently announced the extension of the ban on cruising until February 28, 2021. Cruising is also still not permitted from ports in the U.K. according to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office which advises against cruise ship travel. Meanwhile, Princess Cruises suspended cruises in Australia and New Zealand through the end of May 2021 due to the pandemic.

Cruise executives are nonetheless claiming that their cruise ships are “totally safe” (Costa), “absolutely safe” (NCL), “safer than main street” (RCL), or “safer than any type of holiday” (MSC). But there is a disconnect between what the cruise lines are touting and the reality that it is dangerous to travel during a surging pandemic.

Chances are that the CDC will not extend the NSO which will expire tomorrow. The White House and the cruise industry’s friends in Washington will make certain that does not happen. So we are likely to all see the cruise lines restart sailing this year from U.S. ports, even though countries in Europe are prudently shutting down and the cruise lines are reconsidering their decisions, albeit momentarily, to continue cruising overseas.

But this will be a deadly mistake. Unfortunately, outbreaks will occur on cruise ships notwithstanding the so-called “100% testing.” Of course, there is no such thing as 100% certainty in obtaining an accurate test result (whether it’s a false negative or a false positive) anymore than a cruise executive can honestly promise that a cruise will be “totally” or “absolutely” safe.

The worst thing that can happen to the cruise industry is not for the NSO to be again renewed. The decision to end the NSO will be rightfully viewed as a political favor by the White House to the foreign incorporated cruise lines and their foreign flagged cruise ships. But if and when guests and crew members again become infected and have to undergo quarantines or evacuations at sea, the confidence of the public in cruising will be further eroded. The political favor will backfire. The next administration may not be inclined to undermine the scientific communities in order to jump start the economy. If cruising reopens prematurely and then is suspended again shortly after the first significant outbreak during a cruise, no Caribbean nation will open its ports to allow an infected ship from Miami to dock. Few consumers will think that it’s prudent to cruise.

The cruise industry will not recover if it restarts operations in the U.S. and the CDC, under a more science-friendly administration, quickly shuts down for public health considerations on an emergency basis. The cruise executives should be careful of what they wish for.

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USA TODAY: “CDC: ‘Conditional Sailing Order’ allows cruise lines to sail Nov. 1 with some strings attached . . .  Says Royal Caribbean Cruises executive Richard Fain: “We do believe it is possible to make it that you are safer on a cruise ship than you are on “Main Street.”
You can read the conditional sail order here.

Photo credit: Port of Miami – Marc Averette – CC BY 3.0, commons / wikimedia.