Shumita: I'm Shumita Basu in for Tanzina Vega. The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the cruise industry. As we've reported on the show, cruise ships were early hotspots for the infectious disease and the cruise industry effectively shut down in early March with many believing that the crisis would only last for 30 days.
While passengers and some ship’s crew members have been sent home, it's now two months later and 100,000 crew members are still stuck at sea. For those on board, life has been difficult. Some workers aren't being paid and in many cases, they don't know when they can go home. Taylor Dolven has been following this story closely. She's a business reporter covering tourism for the Miami Herald.
Taylor: The cruise industry really had a front-row seat to the effects of this virus way back in early February. While the rest of the world outside Asia was still trying to figure out what this might look like long-term for the entire globe, the largest outbreak outside of China as of mid-February, actually happened on the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored in Japan.
The initial response was really to ramp-up screening. Companies prevented people who'd recently traveled to Asia from boarding ships all over the world, said they were cleaning more often and doing health screening of passengers before boarding but as we know, those measures were not enough to prevent dozens of outbreaks on cruise ships across the world and as the virus spread it definitely spread through cruise ships globally.
Shumita: I think many of our listeners will probably remember the panic and getting people off of cruise ships and what that was like but what people may not realize is that many crew members have since then been in limbo and been on these ships. Why are these crew members still stuck at sea?
Taylor: The cruise industry finally decided to halt operations on March 13th after repeated outbreaks on cruise ships. You're right, after that, it was a scramble to get ships back into ports. A lot of countries denied those ships. Here in South Florida, we became a safe haven for some of these ships and saw a lot of passengers getting disembarked and repatriated here in South Florida, but yes, crew members largely remained on board.
The industry really thought on March 13th, that they were only going to be pausing operations for a month, for 30 days. They even sent some home, but brought more on in that month. Then when it became clear that the industry would be shut down for much longer than 30 days, they were really stuck in the situation of ramped-up travel restrictions across the world and an incredible cost of getting all these people home. Yes, we've seen now two months after that initial shutdown, that thousands of crew members are still stuck on board without much reliable information about when they're going to be going home.
Shumita: Oh my goodness. Do you have actual numbers on that? Do you know how many crew members have been affected by COVID-19?
Taylor: Yes, at the Miami Herald we're actually tracking the number of positive cases linked to cruise ships and the number of deaths. We know that at least 500 crew members have tested positive since the industry shut down on March 13th and at least seven have died.
Shumita: You mentioned that it's been tricky trying to figure out how to repatriate all of these crew members. Tell us who works on these ships, where are these crew members from?
Taylor: Most crew members are not US Citizens, are international crew. A lot of them are from the Philippines. That's a really big nationality for crew members, also Indonesia and India, but yes, they come from over 100 countries and so these companies are navigating travel restrictions that range from, still open for commercial flights to not allowing under any circumstances, crew members to return.
Those travel restrictions are changing, and so it's been a logistical nightmare, but meanwhile, these people remain on these ships and are just waiting for news about when they'll be able to see their families again.
Shumita: Taylor, you have been in touch with many crew members for your reporting. What are you hearing from them? How are they doing?
Taylor: The ones I'm in touch with are not doing well. They're just really, really desperate more than anything for transparency and reliable information about exactly what their company and government are doing to get them out of this situation. A lot of them have been told repeatedly that they'll be flying home on one day only to see that date canceled and this has happened five, six, seven times.
It's really wearing on them and it's a difficult situation. They're no longer being paid. They are not able to leave and a lot of them are worried about their families at home and just really want to get there to be with them during this difficult time.
Shumita: Taylor, you said they're no longer being paid. They're not being treated as paid working employees at the moment?
Taylor: No. There are a certain number of crew on each ship that are working, even the mega-ships require around 100 people to operate them when they're not in full cruising mode, but most of the rest have been relieved of their contracts and so are no longer being paid.
Some companies are paying, like Royal Caribbean, for example, is paying, giving what they're calling goodwill payments to crew of about $13 a day, but who tell me that they're having to spend most of that on toiletries and other supplies on board.
Shumita: Oh gosh. You've also reported that there have been a few apparent suicides connected to this, right?
Taylor: Yes. As with any suicide, it's difficult to know the circumstances, but we know of a few instances during this time, since the industry has shut down where crew members have committed suicide, yes.
Shumita: Because these cruise ships are often operating in international waters, who regulates them, and do any labor laws apply that could be helpful to these crew members?
Taylor: US labor law does not apply because these are-- While all of the cruise companies are headquartered in South Florida, they're incorporated in other countries and then their ships are flagged to often another country. The international body that regulates this is the International Labor Organization and they've come up with recommendations for shipping companies on how they should be treating employees during this time but the enforcement really falls to the flag state.
A lot of cruise ships are registered in The Bahamas. That would be one, for example, or Malta is another popular one but we haven't so far seen any big oversight when it comes to the payment issue there, for example, but it is a patchwork of laws. You have the ship's flag state, then you have these international groups associated with the UN, then you have where the ship is based and so it's often difficult to tell.
Shumita: What's the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a situation like this. Do they have any role?
Taylor: Yes, they definitely do and they have stepped up their oversight I would say during this time. Whenever the ship is in US waters, CDC rules apply to how it operates. They've come up with strict protocols for how companies can disembark and repatriate crew since mid-April. They've been requiring that repatriation to happen on private transportation, which has caused a rub with some of these companies who are not seeing any revenue and now have to charter flights for thousands of people to go home, but they're definitely taking, I would say, a stepped-up approach to oversight here and I'm sure they'll be involved in drafting protocols for when cruises start up again.
Shumita: Last I heard at least Carnival Cruise Lines is thinking about how to start up again at the end of the summer. What are you hearing from these cruising companies and what are you hearing from crew members about what it will mean to start-up again?
Taylor: Most cruise companies have decided to cancel cruises through end of July, which is-- The CDC has actually banned cruising in the US through at least July 24th, so we're looking at August 1st possibly to start. While none of the companies have come up with protocols publicly about what they'll do, they've all said that cruising will definitely look different.
Crew members that I'm in touch with are really just hoping to get home and are hoping to get back to work once they're able to reunite with their families and recover from this but I think we can be sure that cruising is going to look a lot different. The same changes we're seeing on land will definitely apply there too, mass, social distancing, et cetera.
Shumita: Those things seem like they would be very different though on the confines of a cruise ship. I mean, what are some other changes that are being talked about that could considerably change what the cruise industry looks like?
Taylor: Definitely. Doctors and infectious disease experts say that cruise ships are incredibly dangerous environments for this virus' spread comparable to nursing homes and prisons and other long term confined environments. Disinfecting will be really important. I've talked to experts who recommend that ships not go on voyages at full capacity. Maybe consider filling just half of the ship with passengers. That they not go too far away from land at any time.
To always have a land hospital available because cruise ship infirmaries typically only have capabilities to treat one person in critical condition, one sort of ICU ventilator situation. Those are some of the things that are being floated, but we don't know yet what these companies will do.
Shumita: I would think that one of the things that this has highlighted is the fact that when you're working with an international crew on international waters, in a situation like this which is unprecedented, what should happen to those people? Are there any considerations and changes to labor laws that could affect how crew members might be able to travel home in a situation like this if it happens again?
Taylor: It's an interesting discussion. I haven't heard of anything in the works, but we have actually seen late last week a maritime attorney here in Miami filed a petition for emergency relief from the federal court here to get these people basically asking a federal judge to order the companies to send these crew home as soon as possible.
Other attorneys I've talked to agree that this is a long shot. It's not clear if a federal court in the US has any standing, even though these ships are in US waters, often docked in US ports. They do operate under foreign flags and have international crew, but people are really desperate at this point. That's an example of one effort to try and get a federal US judge to try and intervene citing the humanitarian crisis here.
Shumita: Taylor Dolven is a business reporter covering tourism for the Miami Herald. Taylor, thank you for your reporting. Thanks for coming on the show.
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