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State Department warns against traveling by cruise ship during coronavirus outbreak

Passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship stand on their cabins' balconies at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, Japan, on February 13, 2020. (Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS)

The State Department is warning U.S. citizens not to take cruises, delivering what could be a major blow to one of South Florida’s largest industries.

In a travel advisory issued Sunday evening, the State Department said there is an increased risk of infection of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, on cruise ships.

“U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an equal warning, urging people to “defer all cruise ship travel worldwide.”

The announcements are direct contradictions of statements made Saturday by Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to reassure cruise company CEOs that cruising would continue, albeit with ramped-up screening and sanitizing protocols to be announced in the coming days.

“American people value our cruise line industry, it brings great joy and great entertainment value for Americans,” he said. “We want to ensure Americans can continue to enjoy the opportunities of the cruise line industry.”

Pence is charged with overseeing the federal response to the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 500 people in the U.S. Twenty-one people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19, including two in Florida.

The government warning against cruising comes after coronavirus outbreaks on two cruise ships, both owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp. The Grand Princess ship, which has 21 cases of the virus, 19 of them crew members, is expected to dock in Oakland, Calif., on Monday after five days idling off the coast. The Diamond Princess ship saw nearly 700 people contract the virus on board while quarantined in Japan in February.

On Sunday afternoon, California Gov. Gavin Newsom explained that the sickest people would be evacuated off the cruise ship first after it docks sometime Monday. After that, U.S. residents will be transported to various military bases.

The estimated 1,000 California cruisers will be split between Travis Air Force Base in Solano County and the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego for a 14-day quarantine. Other Americans will be sent to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas or Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Ga. The more than a thousand crew members will be quarantined onboard the ship.

The CDC did not immediately respond to questions about why crew will be kept on board, given the difficulty in maintaining and risk involved with a shipboard quarantine.

Several crew members from the Grand Princess transferred to other ships about two weeks ago, including two to the Regal Princess, based in Fort Lauderdale. The CDC issued a “no-sail order” for that ship Sunday while the agency tested the two crew members for COVID-19. The ship sailed back and forth off the Florida coast all day Sunday. At around 6:30 p.m., the CDC lifted the order and announced the results were negative.

Cruise companies say they will continue to work on a plan for enhanced health screenings, like temperature checks at ports, and formalized quarantine protocols, discussed with the vice president on Saturday.

“The health and safety of our guests and crew is our highest priority, and cruising remains one of the most attractive vacation options available,” said Carnival Corp. spokesperson Roger Frizzell.

For those who decide to cruise despite the travel advisory, the State Department warns not to bank on repatriation flights to get home if a foreign government decides a quarantine is necessary. In the case of the Diamond Princess, U.S. passengers remained on the ship for nearly two weeks.

In the Caribbean, where the majority of cruise ships sail, island nations have turned cruise ships away or only allowed certain passengers to disembark in recent weeks as they struggle to contain the spread of the virus. Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands have turned cruise ships away. There are 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Caribbean, but none of those countries, which are heavily dependent on cruise business, has instituted advisories for either their citizens or arriving ships.

Reinforcing the U.S. advisories, Canada similarly has told its residents to avoid cruising.

If travelers heed the U.S. government’s advice, cruise company revenues will surely thin and shareholders may respond.

Even before the advisory, investors were skittish. Shares for Carnival Corp., by far the largest cruise company in the world, closed at $27.15 Friday, down $24.16 per share since Jan. 2. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. slid similarly. Royal Caribbean closed at $65.01 per share Friday, down $69.64 since Jan. 2. Norwegian closed at $27.01 per share Friday, down $31.73 points since Jan. 2.

The industry had a very profitable 2019. Carnival Corp. reported a profit of $3 billion in 2019; Royal Caribbean reported a profit of $1.9 billion, and Norwegian Cruise Line reported a profit of $930.2 million.

For Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer of Miami-Dade County’s tourism marketing bureau, the travel warning could bring the kind of business slowdown not seen since the aftermath of 9/11, when air traffic was halted.

“This is approximation to something we experienced along the lines of 9/11,” he said. “We are the cruise capital of the world; approximately 12% of people come for cruise experiences. We are in new territory.”

Among the 12 in Florida who have contracted the virus is a man who worked at Port Everglades for a company hired by cruise lines to greet passengers and help them on and off ships. Ellen Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Port Everglades, told the Miami Herald she did not know what day the worker had last come to the port, but said the port is safe for business.

Shamarial Roberson, Florida’s deputy secretary of health, did not respond to requests for information about how many people the port worker might have come into contact with.

The world’s three largest cruise companies, Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line, did not respond to requests for comment about whether they contract with the company.


© 2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.