As everyone knows by now, yesterday two guests tested positive for COVID-19 during the recent cruise of the Royal Caribbean owned Celebrity Millennium from St. Maarten, notwithstanding the fact that the cruse line require 100% of the adults (but not children) to be vaccinated and also required negative test results before boarding.

The infected guests apparently (according to guests aboard the ship who have contacted us) have to remain in a hotel once the ship returns to St. Maarten until their test results are negative. It is unknown whether the two infected guests require medical treatment, although the cruise line’s media reports stress that they are asymptomatic. I imagine that they will then fly home when they receive their negative test results, wherever that might be.

The question naturally arises who will pay for the costs of the medical treatment (if any) and international travel back home?

These questions should be asked by any family thinking of taking a cruise during the ongoing pandemic, whether they are vaccinated or not.

The conditional sailing orders (CSO) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) require (for cruise leaving from U.S. ports) that cruise line submit proof of the companies’ agreements with port authorities that they have arranged housing for the quarantine of guests, as well as arrangements for medical treatment of the infected.  The cruise lines, or course, have not produced copies of the agreements to the public or otherwise clearly disclosed who will be responsible for paying  for any necessary medical treatment their guests require off of their ships, or for the costs of their guests flying back from wherever they are quarantined.

Of course, the CDC’s CSO’s apply only to cruising from U.S. ports, so there are no such agreements that the cruise lines have to make for cruises leaving ports in the Caribbean, such as the Celebrity Millennium which left from St. Maarten. But the issue nonetheless exists who pays when cruise guests test positive during a cruise?

A Royal Caribbean ship, the Adventure of the Seas, left the port of Nassau today. This is another cruise where 100% of the guests (except children) are suppose to be vaccinated. I understand that Royal Caribbean also required negative COVID tests before the guests boarded the cruise ship.

I am reading lots of comments on Twitter and Facebook from cruise fans who express their excitement about finally returning to cruising. Some brought their unvaccinated kids aboard the cruise ship today.  How many of them have inquired what will happen if they or their close contacts test positive  for COVID-19? Will they be quarantined off the ship? Who will pay for their  medical expenses off the ship and who will pay for their flights home?

Regarding medical expenses, homeowner’s insurance policies typically exclude coverage for liabilities on ships.  Most medical insurance does not cover illness or injuries outside of the U.S. And many policies of travel insurance exclude coverage for illnesses related to pandemics. The last thing that a family wanting to spend a relaxing week at sea wants is to think about potentially incurring uninsured expenses for repeat testing and medical treatment required off of the ship and flights to get their families home.

So today I asked Royal Caribbean via Twitter these basic questions. I quickly received a pleasant response: “Onboard our ships the health and safety of our guests is our top priority” followed by this response:  “this means there are certain and specific protocols in place to avoid this from happening aboard our ships. In the event this was to happen, certain instructions and protocols would be given once you’re onboard.”

So What Are Royal Caribbean’s Legal Obligations?

In considering the contractual obligation owed by a cruise line to a guest, courts look at the terms and condition of the cruise ticket and related documents prepared by the cruise company. Most cruise lines typically deny all responsibility for medical expenses related to shipboard illnesses and injuries.

Based on the terms and conditions set forth in Royal Caribbean’s cruise tickets and internet site, it appears that the cruise line may be able to avoid paying for all of the medical expenses incurred off of the ship and most of the flights back home.

Sources of Information

There are three sources of information which a guest needs to read and understand regarding this issue. First, there are terms in the cruise line’s “Healthy Sail Center.” Secondly, there is the ROYAL CARIBBEAN GROUP REFUND* AND CANCELLATION POLICY FOR COVID-19 (caps in original). Thirdly, there is Royal Caribbean’s “Cruise/Cruisetour Ticket Contract.”

Medical Expenses on the Ship – Yes; Off the Ship – No:

I know that at one point Royal Caribbean stated in the terms and conditions of its cruise ticket for its cruise from Singapore, for example, that it will pay up to $20,000 for medical expenses incurred by a guest on the cruise ship. Of course, Singapore has virtually no community spread of COVID cases. And cruises from Singapore are limited to citizens of that country. So its not much of a risk to guarantee payment of shipboard medical expenses where all of the guests are from a country with no COVID exposure. Shipboard medical expenses are unlikely to ever reach that amount in the first place.

For Caribbean sailings, such as from the Bahamas, the shipboard medical care is free on the ship, but not ashore either if the guest is quarantined on a Caribbean island or when they return home.

The Healthy Sail Center information includes this initial language regarding medical expenses: “Onboard SARS-CoV-2 evaluation and testing that is performed on recommendation of the onboard medical team is free of charge. COVID-19-related medical treatment provided onboard, should treatment be necessary, is also free of charge.” But there is no such responsibility for COVID evaluation and treatment when its required off of  the ship, either during a quarantine during the cruise or after the guest return home.

Of course medical care on the ship is limited. Guests can reasonably assume that anyone who becomes acutely ill will be transferred off of the ship. This is where the problems begin. Medical treatment in Caribbean ports of call is also limited, particularly during this pandemic, and very expensive. Hospitals in the Caribbean typically require upfront payments. Guests should prepare to turn their credit cards over in order to receive treatment. No insurance company back home in the U.S. will reimburse these expenses.  It is also questionable whether a guest’s medical insurance will cover intensive care treatment, ventilators and expensive medicine and therapies if the guest contracts COVID at sea outside of the U.S. and become ill.

Uninsured medical expenses for medical care in the U.S. which is needed to severe COVID infections contracted on a cruise ship could be catastrophically high.

Airfare Back Home – Watch Out For the Fine Print!:

Royal Caribbean will pay for some guests’ airfare back home but not for all guests, largely depending on whether the guest booked their flights through the cruise line. The language in the Healthy Sail Center (which is arguably not part of the contract between the cruise line and guest) states in general terms:

“If you test positive for COVID-19 during the cruise, Royal Caribbean will cover the costs of COVID-19 related medical treatment onboard, any required land-based quarantine, and travel home for you and your Travelling Party” (defined as “your family members living with you in the same household and travelling companions assigned to your stateroom on the cruise”). The Healthy Sail Center also says: “Royal Caribbean has developed transport protocols to ensure impacted guests get home safely.”

But this broad language is narrowed by the fine print in the terms and conditions of the ROYAL CARIBBEAN GROUP REFUND* AND CANCELLATION POLICY FOR COVID-19 which obligates the cruise line to pay the airfare for guests who tested positive for COVID only if the guest “purchased flights through the cruise line.” But for guests who handled their own flights, the cruise line “will not be responsible for any associated costs” (such as “airline change fees and any difference in the airfare”).

This is a perfect example of a popular saying by Tom Waits — ‘The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.’

Royal Caribbean’s Catch-All “Obligation to Comply with RCG COVID-19 Policies and Procedures”

The cruise line’s “ROYAL CARIBBEAN GROUP REFUND* AND CANCELLATION POLICY FOR COVID-19” contains language permitting the company to deny paying for or providing assistance “of any kind” when it determines that guest failed “to comply with the RCG COVID-19 Policies and Procedures in effect at the time of the cruise.” It is less than clear exactly what these policies and procedures may be. In light of the fact that the company recommends its quests to become vaccinated, does a passenger risk forfeiting all of the rather limited payments and assistance by ailing to become vaccinated?

The Bottom Line: Guests who booked their own flights and require medical treatment ashore and back home are largely on their own

Forbes recently reported that:

Only half of Americans (50%) are confident that the cruise industry can reopen safely coming out of the pandemic, according to a recent Harris Poll Covid-19 tracker survey fielded May 26-28 to 1,999 U.S. adults . . . When asked whether they were confident that various industries could keep customers safe, respondents rated the cruise industry dead last . . .”

Providing gobbledygook responses to legitimate questions posed regarding the health and safety of cruise passengers and the economic consequences of testing positive for COVID or becoming ill at sea is not the way to bolster consumer confidence.

One would think that any family thinking of taking a cruise during a pandemic would check and double check the details of the cruise line’s policies and protocols (and the fine print) and know exactly what will happen and the financial consequences if they or other guests on the ship test positive for COVID.

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