Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (HCLH) announced today that it will require its crew and passengers to be vaccinated as a prerequisite to cruising.  NCLH stated that it will follow its own “Sail Safe” protocols and “Healthy Sail” protocols which it developed with experts who it hired with Royal Caribbean. NCLH has adopted a policy of “Mandatory Vaccinations on Initial Voyages” which states that:

“All guests and crew must be fully vaccinated, at least 2 weeks prior to departure, in order to board. Guest vaccination requirements are currently for all sailings embarking through October 31, 2021– we will follow the science to make determinations on requirements for all other future sailings.”

The CDC’s Vaccination Guidance

This cruise group requires vaccinations for both guests and crew after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it new guidance last Friday. The guidance includes several references to the CDC’s recommendation that all passengers and crew members, as well as port personnel, be vaccinated, including:

  • A plan and timetable for vaccinating crew members before the cruise ship resumes passengers operations;
  • Proposals how to maximally protect passengers and crew members from infection and spread  of COIVD-19;
  • Education of passengers, crew and port personnel about the importance of vaccinations; and
  • “Vaccination clinics” to educate and encourage port personnel who are expected to interact with passengers and crew to become vaccinated.

NCLH Sends Unilateral Announcement that It Will Resume Sailing This Summer as Part of “America’s National Opening This Summer” 

NCLH informed the CDC of its new vaccination policy today, when its CEO, Frank Del Rio, sent an unilateral letter (see link at bottom) to  the Director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, titled “our plan to join America’s national opening this summer,” stating that the cruise group would  resume cruise operations “on or about July 4, 2021.” The date was obviously chosen to coincide with the U.S.’s Fourth Of July observations. This is an odd U.S. patriotic reference by a foreign corporation which incorporated in Bermuda and which registered its cruise ship in the Bahamas to avoid all U.S. income taxes, U.S. wage and labor laws, and U.S. occupational health and safety regulations. There is obviously no remote scientific relevance tying the nation’s birthday to the issue of whether it’s safe to cruise on a foreign flagged cruise ship.

CEO Del Rio did not indicate wheher his cruise lines will follow any other CDC’s requirements set forth in the CDC’s recent guidance. The CDC has made it clear in its original and most recent conditional sailing orders that cruise lines must obtain the CDC’s  approval of arrangements with all local port and local health authorities (“where the ship intends to dock or make port”) regarding the vaccinations of port personnel, as well as medical treatment and housing for those individuals who become infected or ill with COVID-19 and close contacts who need to be isolated and quarantined.

NCLH Ignores the CDC’s Language Regarding Port Personnel Vacinations

The CDC requires cruise operators and port authorities to devise a plan to protect not only cruise passenger and guests but “port personnel” as well. The CDC widely defines this term as including “port agents/greeters, security personnel, transportation staff (including drivers of buses and shuttle-van), baggage handlers, check-in staff, cleaners/janitorial staff, longshoremen, maritime pilots, and delivery drivers.” There is nothing in NCLH’s “Safe Sail” protocols or the joint Royal Caribbean / NCL “Healthy Sail” recommendations (Read Why The Royal Caribbean – NCL “Healthy Sail” Protocols Will Fail) addressing the health and safety of port workers and the corresponding spread of the disease from cruise ships.

NCLH Ignores the CDC’s Medical and Housing Requirements

Most glaringly absent from Del Rio’s missive is the absence of any intention of NCLH following the CDC’s requirement that it seek approval of agreements to provide medical treatment and housing for those guests and crew who become infected or ill with COVID-19 and their close contacts and need to be isolated and quarantined. An essential requirement by the CDC is the preparation and approval of medical and housing arrangements in order to provide for the “emergency medical transportation of critically ill persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 from the ship to a shoreside medical facility …”

A central concern of the CDC has always been that cruise ships exacerbate the global spread of COVID-19 and treatment of people infected with coronavirus will inundate and overwhelm federal and local healthcare systems. Anticipating this concern, Del Rio opines that because of the company’s unapproved protocols, “we will not require federal, state or local governments to incur time and/or resources in providing medical assistance to our brands’ guests.”  The CEO surmises that “our vessels are well equipped to handle the one-off case of infection that could occur, and our procedures are well detailed and resourced to treat, address and otherwise handle any isolated case onboard.” Del Rio also touts that his comany’s protocols will create a “a safe, bubble-like environment.” Unfortunately, the cruise industry which has experienced oner 200 positive COVID-19 cases outside of U.S. based sailings, knows first-hand that promises of a “safe  bubble” are often illusory.

It is doubtful that the scientists at the CDC will give any credence to these opinions of a cruise CEO whose shipboard medical doctors and medical personnel in the past maimed both crew members and  guests in heartbreaking, highly publicized cases.

NCLH Tells the CDC That It Will Be Sailing at Full Capacity in Three Months

The most outrageous part of CEO Del Rio’s presumptuous letter is that he tells the CDC that he will soon be sailing with ships full of passengers.  He writes “NCLH vessels will begin cruise operations at an initial reduced capacity of 60%, gradually ramping up our fleet departing from U.S. ports and increasing capacity by 20% every 30 days.” This means that by August 4th, his ships will be sailing at over 70% capacity. By September, the percentage will climb to over 85%. By October 4th, NCLH ships will be operating at full capacity.

The CDC’s recent guidance states that the cruise lines are obligated to obtain approval of agreements which must include the total number of ships (and the total number of passengers and crew) to be operated from U.S. ports. The cruise lines must consider whether the number of people could potentially overwhelm the available medical supplies and ability of local health officials.  There is no way that the CDC will accept a cruise line’s unilateral decision to sail as many ships as its executives may fancy at full capacity in just three months.

Del Rio has long stated that he intends to sail cruise ships at full capacity and as soon as possible. Last July, Del Rio told the Financial Times that “one of the hallmarks of the cruise industry is that we always sail with full ships. It’s one of the basic tenets of our business model.”  Lower capacities “would be a severe blow” to financial performance, he added. The CDC has concluded that reducing the occupancy of ships was an integral step toward combating the spread of COVID-19.

There is a Long History of CEO Del Rio’s Contempt for the CDC

There is an undeniable irony of Del Rio dictating his view of health and safety to the federal health agency. NCL almost single handedly cemented the reputation of the cruise industry being non-compliant with the CDC’s cruise-related COVID health protocols. NCL in general and Del Rio in particular have demonstrated a persistently combative and defiant attitude toward the CDC:

  • Last April, ex-president Trump named Del Rio to his “Great American Economic Revival” Industry Group. Del Rio admired the reopen the economy attitude of the ex-president who advocated fewer regulations and pro-business tax cuts before the pandemic. Del Rio was one of several cruise executives who refused to publicly acknowledge or support the CDC’s  extension of the “no-sail” order to July 24, 2021. Like other cruise CEO’s, he publicly disputed the CDC’s conclusion that “cruise ship travel markedly increases the risk and impact of the COVID19 disease outbreak in the United States.”
  • In May, NCL permitted its crew members to crowd together without masks during several parties  on the Norwegian Escape (above left) and Norwegian Epic (below 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 onto the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Epic which sailed to Miami, the cruise line scheduled a series of parties on the pool decks of these ships. It made no effort to enforce social distancing or the wearing of masks. Hundreds of NCL crew members 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 instructions that crew members should not be forced to live together in solo internal cabins on the NCL ships. This was reckless and a clear violation of the CDC’s guidelines.
  • Del Rio claimed, even before his hired experts prepared a single protocol designed to reduce the spread of the virus, that a cruise ship can be “safer than anywhere else in the world.
  • In May, CEO Del Rio characterized the CDC as an “obstacle” to cruising. He claimed that as soon as the government lift travel bans and open up ports, “the consumer will be there.” Del Rio argued that government authorities have to “immediately stop” travel restrictions which are allegedly causing “great harm” on a “permanent basis to economies.” He said that “reality is now setting in” and “the general strokes painted by authority have to stop.” Del Rio stated 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.

Health and Safety Agencies, Not Rich Cruise Tycoons, Should Decide When It’s Safe to Cruise

CEO Del Rio received compensation in the staggering amount of $36,400,000 last year, consisting of nearly $18,000,000 in stock awards. NCLH meanwhile fired or furloughed thousands of unemployed crew members and shoreside employees due to the pandemic.

CEO Del Rio is by far the highest paid cruise executive in the world. In the last three years alone, Del Rio took home over $76,000,000 in income. Including his 2015 income of $31,900,000, he collected over $108,000,000 for four years, including $22,590,000 in 2018, $17,808,000 in 2019,and $36,400,000 in 2020. He collected $2,900,000 in 2016 and $10,490,000 in 2017.

In my view, Del Rio has forgotten that he is just a presumptuous cruise tycoon, not an epidemiologist or a scientist or a infectious disease expert. He should leave issues like safe ship capacity, COVID-19 protocols and contingent emergency plans to the federal health and safety experts.

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Image Credits: Norwegian Joy – Arno Redenius – CC BY-SA 4.0, commons / wikimedia; Frank Del Rio – CNBC Jim Cramer’s MAD Money April 5, 2021; NCL deck parties on Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Epic – anonymous NCL crew member.

You can read CEO Del Rio’s full “our plan to join America’s national opening this summerletter to the CDC on this link to Cruise Industry News.