As the coronavirus pandemic raged around the world, cruise ship companies continued to allow their crews to attend social gatherings, work out at gyms and share buffet-style meals, violating basic protocols designed to stop the spread of the highly transmissible virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a scathing 20-page order, released Thursday, that extended the suspension of cruise operations until Sept. 30.
In a rebuke of the cruise ship companies, Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC, blamed them for widespread transmission of the virus. The CDC said there were 99 outbreaks aboard 123 cruise ships in United States waters alone, the agency said in the statement. From March 1 until July 10, 80% of the ships in the CDC’s jurisdiction were affected by the coronavirus. The agency said there had been nearly 3,000 suspected and confirmed cases and 34 deaths on ships in U.S. waters.
As of July 3, nine ships still had ongoing or resolving outbreaks.
The CDC spent at least 38,000 hours managing the crisis, the order said. Public health authorities had to do contact tracing for some 11,000 passengers, more than the number of contacts identified from airplane flights since the beginning of pandemic, the CDC said.
The cruise industry has struggled to manage the coronavirus pandemic since the start, when the Diamond Princess, part of the cruise giant Carnival Corp., moored in the Japanese harbor of Yokohama, Japan, amid an outbreak that eventually infected 712 people and killed nine of them. Even as warnings were issued about the dangers of cruise-ship travel, passengers kept boarding and ships kept sailing.
Though more and more cruise passengers fell ill, companies continued their voyages, offering entertainment that included live music and pool parties. The industry ultimately suspended operations in mid-March, but as ships made their way to port, many passengers and crew were stranded around the world, as countries refused the ships entry.
One ship arrived in Fort Lauderdale with four dead passengers on board.
Many of those passengers who were allowed to disembark from contaminated ships “traversed international airports, boarded planes and returned to their homes,” the CDC said, potentially spreading the virus further.
The cruise industry had already voluntarily suspended operations until Sept. 15, and many companies withdrew their ships from United States waters, removing them from the CDC’s jurisdiction. But the order from Redfield underscores the gap between the industry and the public health agency. The companies cannot begin to sail again until they come up with cohesive plans for prevention and mitigation of the illness.
Cruise ship companies submitted plans on how to safely evacuate crews, but nearly all the companies failed to meet the basic requirements necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC said. Crew members still bunked together and shared bathrooms. Even ships that seemed to have gone a month without any coronavirus cases had crew members who tested positive upon reaching shore, Redfield said.
One company, Norwegian Cruise Lines, said it felt it had exceeded recommended CDC guidance, because crew members were not just asked but “encouraged” to wear face coverings, the order said. Disney acknowledged that some of its asymptomatic-infected crew members had not quarantined until after the results of shipwide testing came in.
The companies created a task force to come up with recommendations on how to safely sail, but according to the CDC, the group will not produce its findings for several months.
If unrestricted cruise-ship passenger operations were permitted to resume, it would put “substantial unnecessary risk” on communities, health care workers, port personnel and federal employees, the order said, as well as placing passengers and crew members at increased risk.
The agency’s previous no-sail order was set to expire July 24.
Disney said only one of its four ships, the Disney Wonder, had an outbreak on board — but only after passengers had disembarked. The company tested every crew member on board and isolated non-essential crew to their cabins for three weeks in April. Half the 174 crew who tested positive had no symptoms, the company said.
The ship has not had a positive case since May 8, Disney said.
Royal Caribbean said it would suspend operations through September to comply with the order. “The health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit is our top priority,” the company said.
Carnival Cruises said that it had already extended its suspension through September. But the company plans three voyages in Germany next month through a European line, and Italy trips are also expected soon, a spokesman said.
Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Line Industry Association, a trade organization that represents most of the major cruise companies, released a statement that did not address the CDC criticisms.
“As we continue to work towards the development of enhanced protocols to support the safe resumption of cruise operations around the world, we look forward to timely and productive dialogue with the CDC to determine measures that will be appropriate for ocean-going cruise operations to resume in the United States when the time is right,” she said.