Cruise companies refuse CDC terms to repatriate crew, call transport ‘too expensive’

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Cruise companies are allowed to disembark and repatriate people still trapped on ships around the U.S. by private transportation as long as their executives sign an agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that holds the companies accountable for the process. They are refusing to do so.

In conversations with the CDC, cruise company officials have complained that arranging private transportation for disembarking crew is “too expensive,” according to a spokesperson for the agency.

The standoff is preventing about 100,000 crew members and some passengers from leaving cruise ships lingering in and around U.S. waters, including dozens of U.S. citizens. Crew members still stuck on board say they feel like an afterthought after watching their companies move mountains to repatriate passengers on charter flights and other private transportation after the industry was shut down on March 13. Only a handful of ships still have passengers on them, including Carnival Corporation’s Coral Princess, floating off of South Florida.

Julia Whitcomb, 24, from Illinois, is one of three American crew members, among 954 total, stuck on the Celebrity Infinity cruise ship, owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. She worked as a singer on the ship. She has spent more than a month confined to a tiny cabin with her boyfriend, a fellow crew member, while the ship floats in and out of U.S. ports.

On Wednesday, as the ship was docked at PortMiami, she was told to pack her bags, say goodbye to her Argentine boyfriend, and check out at the payroll office — she was finally going home. But a few hours later, she got a call from Human Resources telling her that the company’s legal department will not agree to the CDC’s terms, preventing her from getting off, she told the Miami Herald.

“They took it all back,” she said, distraught, as the ship left Miami Wednesday night around 9:00 p.m.

Royal Caribbean spokesperson Jonathan Fishman said the company is working on getting groups of people together for a charter; in Whitcomb’s case, he said, it is not possible to arrange private transportation for one person.

“We have already been able to help many of our crew members return safely home on commercial flights, charter flights and direct sailing to their home countries,” he said. “We are working hard to repatriate everyone else who wants to return home as soon as governments allow.”

A similar situation played out in Los Angeles Wednesday when Carnival Corp. refused to agree to CDC terms for any crew members, including several Americans, from its Holland America Line Oosterdam ship, instead opting to send the ship out to sea again without disembarking anyone, according to local media.

Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Holland America owner Carnival Corp., said Thursday, “We are committed to getting our crew members safely home to their families and continue to make progress in repatriating our crew members.”

But according to CDC spokesperson Jasmine Reed, “Holland America nor Carnival provided the attestation despite requests from CDC … The refusal of Holland America and Carnival executives to attest to safe disembarkation conditions is the reason why CDC did not approve disembarkation for the Oosterdam crew.”

Both companies have agreed to the terms for some passenger and crew since they were put into place in mid-April.


The CDC is currently reviewing plans that cruise companies submitted to the agency on April 22 outlining how they will stop ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks on their ships and safely repatriate crew. On April 23, the CDC sent a list of guidelines to cruise companies describing how they could repatriate people safely using private transportation while the CDC reviews their plans.

The guidelines say companies must medically screen people before they disembark, ensure people who have been exposed to COVID-19 travel separately from those who have not, provide face coverings, instruct people to stay home for 14 days and practice social distancing. They also must ensure people who disembark do not stay overnight at a hotel, use public transportation, enter airport terminals, take commercial flights, have layovers exceeding eight hours, or have interaction with the public while on their way home.

For each person who disembarks, the company’s Chief Medical Officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and Chief Executive Officer must sign an agreement to these terms that says, “false or misleading statements or omissions may result in criminal and civil actions for fines, penalties, damages, and imprisonment.”

It’s that last part that cruise companies are unwilling to do for most remaining crew members and passengers, according to spokespeople for Royal Caribbean and Carnival, keeping them on the ships a month and a half after the industry halted operations. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. did not respond to a request for comment.

Only a small fraction of a cruise ship’s crew — around 100 people — are needed to operate it without passengers.

Whitcomb’s ship, the Celebrity Infinity, offloaded its last passengers in Miami on March 14. After that, crew members were encouraged to take advantage of the amenities normally off limits to them — pools, hot tubs, spas, fitness centers, specialty restaurants — and act as if they were on vacation while they waited for the pandemic to pass. That changed on March 23, when a crew member had to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and the entire crew was instructed not to leave their cabins. Whitcomb and her boyfriend spent the first five days isolated in a crew cabin without a window or fresh air. They were later moved to a passenger cabin with a balcony.

Whitcomb is desperate to get home. The lack of transparency from the company — which has repeatedly blamed the CDC for her inability to get off the ship — and the isolation are disintegrating her well-being, she said.

“The ongoing lack of communication and unreliability of the little bit of information I am provided is so very troubling,” she said. “The thought that this nightmare has no ending point, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, is debilitating.”

Royal Caribbean has been distributing weekly crew repatriation updates to crew members. Updates obtained by the Miami Herald from April 17, 23, 26, and 29 say, “The CDC has banned all flights for crew repatriation until a new plan is approved.” A spokesperson for the CDC said the agency never stopped allowing charter flights home for crew members. Royal Caribbean did not respond to a request for comment on this matter.


Non-U.S. citizens feel even more helpless. Some individuals aren’t allowed to leave their single, 200-square-foot cabins; others are being let out for just three hours a day. Many are being shuffled to new ships without regard for social distancing and forced to share single cabins with strangers.

“We are prisoners right now,” said a crew member on the Carnival Freedom, who has not received any information about when he will be sent home. The Herald is not using his name because he fears retaliation from the company.

The ship was heading to Barbados Wednesday, he said. Earlier in the day, Carnival Cruise Line crew announced a repatriation plan in which the company will move more than 6,000 crew via lifeboat to nine ships that will make weeks-long journeys to Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America to take them home. A copy of the plan obtained by the Herald shows the nine traveling ships carrying 10,000 total crew will be the Carnival Breeze, Conquest, Dream, Ecstasy, Fantasy, Fascination, Glory, Liberty and Magic.

Carnival Cruise Line said that it has repatriated 10,000 crew so far via charter flights. A company spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about plans for the Carnival Freedom and other U.S.-based ships omitted from the plan announced Wednesday. At a court hearing last week for Carnival Corp.’s ongoing criminal case, the chief maritime officer Bill Burke told the federal judge the company has 100 passengers and 72,000 crew members on its ships, and he expects in a month there will still be crew and passengers who have not yet been repatriated.

A crew member from the Norwegian Getaway who was transferred to the Norwegian Escape is sharing a single, inside cabin with a stranger. He hasn’t received any information about when he will be able to go home. He said the ship is not following the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing, cramming crew members into confined theaters for meetings and dining rooms for meals.

“I’m so scared for my life and so many others here,” said the crew member, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “They treating us bad and no one answering our questions we have properly, especially concerning social distancing,”

The ship is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Cruise companies are expecting to hear back from the CDC about their plans to repatriate crew this week. The world’s three largest cruise companies — Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — are all based in Miami.


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