The cruise industry, shut out of federal COVID-19 aid and ordered not to sail through Oct. 31, is now the subject of even more scrutiny: A Democratic lawmaker wants to know if the Trump administration intervened in a decision on when cruise ships can safely resume sailing.
In an Oct. 13 letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., questioned whether the White House weighed in on the CDC’s decision to extend the no-sail order to Oct. 31. Press reports say the CDC wanted to extend the order through Feb. 15, 2021, but backed off after White House involvement.
“I am worried about impairments to the independence of the CDC’s science-based and unbiased public health advice based on reported interference from the White House and political leadership in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as well as pressure from the cruise line industry,” wrote Maloney, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.
Maloney was referring to reports by The New York Times and Axios that President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force decided to shorten the extension of the no-sail order at a meeting on Sept. 29 after input from the cruise line industry. On Sept. 30, it extended it for one month, to Oct. 31. The largest cruise lines had already agreed to suspend operations through that date.
Cruises became synonymous in the early days of the pandemic with the spread of the virus in tightly packed spaces. Images of first the Diamond Princess, with 712 infected and nine dead in February, then the Grand Princess, held off Oakland, California, with 78 passengers positive for the virus, became public relations nightmares for an industry that claims to generate more than $150 billion in worldwide economic activity and support 2 million jobs.
There have been hints that the industry is making its first tentative steps toward a return. Carnival Corp., which owned those ships through its Princess Cruises subsidiary, last month resumed limited operations in Italy under its Costa brand, with three ships on the water, and launched its AIDA brand last weekend.
Cruise industry experts met with Vice President Mike Pence Oct. 9 to discuss a possible return to service, presenting to Pence a list of 74 recommendations ranging from temperature checks and testing to face coverings aimed at helping to relaunch the industry.
The recommendations, which were not tied to the government’s sailing ban, were commissioned by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, two industry giants, and crafted by a panel headed by Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Mike Leavitt, former Utah Governor and Health and Human Services secretary.
Laziza Lambert, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group, declined to comment on whether the industry sought to shorten the no-sail period recommendation, but said members of the association have spent “significant time and resources” working to develop more stringent health and sanitation measures. Those measures include 100 percent testing for all passengers and crew, enhanced embarkation and screening procedures and shore excursion oversight.
“With proper protocols in place and enforced, we believe a responsible phased-in resumption of cruising is possible,” she said.
Trump early on signaled a willingness to provide aid to the industry, but that idea was quashed when both Republicans and Democrats in Congress criticized the industry for routinely using a loophole in maritime law to escape U.S. taxes by registering ships under foreign flags.
A House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigation into Carnival Cruise Line’s response to the pandemic is ongoing, and Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have faced lawsuits from passengers and crew who were affected by the virus.
Before the pandemic, the U.S. cruise industry generated more than $53 billion in economic activity in the U.S. and supported 421,000 jobs, according to CLIA.
But the pandemic eliminated most of that activity, and the industry is bleeding money even as it draws investigations and lawsuits over its roll in the outbreak.
The industry association reports that in the U.S., it's shed 163,700 jobs through September because of the suspension of operations. CLIA said it estimates a $24.85 billion economic decline since mid-March, extending beyond cruises alone to the travel agents and other industries that support the industry.
The Sept. 30 no-sail order underlines the difficulty of containing the virus on cruise ships: From March 1 through Sept. 28, the CDC found 3,689 confirmed cases of COVID-19 or COVID-like illness cases on cruise ships and 41 deaths.
During that period, more than 82 percent of cruise ships in U.S. waters were affected by the illness -- 102 outbreaks on 124 different cruise ships, according to the CDC.
“The insidious nature of COVID-19 and the physical infrastructure constraints on cruise ships makes containing potential outbreaks on board these ships an incredibly difficult task even with the best practices and procedures in place,” Maloney wrote.
Ross Klein, an international authority on the cruise ship industry and a professor in the School of Social Work at St. John's College in Newfoundland, Canada, said many of the things that cruises made their profits from before the pandemic -- big group excursions or activities that can’t be done in a socially distant manner -- are forbidden under new health standards.
“You can’t cram a casino and generate huge amounts of money,” he said. “You can’t cram bars. ... Cruise ships get their major profits onboard.”
Still, Klein said he believes the industry can survive a year or perhaps two before their debt loads exceed the value of their assets.
A new cruise ship costs more than $1 billion, he said. While some companies, such as Carnival, are selling some of those ships, they still hold on to billions of dollars worth of assets. Pre-pandemic, CLIA estimates that its members had between 270 and 280 ships on the water on a daily basis.
Before the pandemic, he said, cruise ships could make a net profit of at least $100 a day per passenger.
“The question seems to be whether they can replicate that,” he said.