Cruise Ship Owners Left Thousands of Workers Adrift for Months

One day in May, nearly two months after the cruise industry suspended operations because of the pandemic, Chris Richardson stood on a pier on a private island in the Bahamas waiting to board his third cruise ship in six days.

Mr. Richardson, a Canadian ice skater, had been a performer on the giant Liberty of the Seas cruise ship when Covid-19 struck in late March. Since then, his employer, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., had been transferring thousands of idled crew members from ship to ship in what seemed like an endless quest to get them home.

As he streamed by throngs of seafarers waiting to board ships, he saw many without masks. “We had no idea if anyone was infected with Covid,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic hit the cruise industry early and hard. Outbreaks raced through hundreds of passengers on dozens of ships, sparking a chaotic weekslong effort to get paying customers off the boats and back to their home countries.

For more than 125,000 crew members, though, that was only the beginning. Long after passengers were gone and the cruise-ship story had faded from the headlines, thousands of employees were still stuck on the vessels, far from their homes in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and other far-flung nations and largely barred from boarding commercial jets to return.

The cruise companies decided to sort most of their employees by home country, regroup them on their own cruise ships and sail them home. The result was a disorganized shuffling of workers between vessels that increased their risk of exposure to the virus.

Philippine coast guard personnel tested crew members for infection in May.

Photo: Philippine Coastguard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In interviews, crew members and officials in 13 countries described dangerous conditions for employees on ships owned by the world’s largest cruise lines. Some ships allowed employees to congregate in restaurants and bars, serve themselves in buffet lines and hold parties, some crew members said. Even ships with Covid-19 outbreaks often didn’t enforce such basic precautions as social distancing, they said.

The logistics of repatriating crew members to more than a hundred nations were a nightmare for cruise companies, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. Some nations had closed their borders while others allowed only limited access under rules that frequently changed. Thousands still haven’t made it home, Coast Guard officials said.

Crew members on 100 of the 106 cruise ships for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had data suffered Covid-19 infections or “Covid-like illness” between March 1 and June 23, with 638 crew members testing positive for the virus and 1,408 with Covid-like illness not verified by tests, according to CDC data.

At least 23 with the virus died after the cruise ships suspended commercial sailing, according to the CDC data, other public-health officials and cruise companies. The statistics don’t include some major outbreaks on ships outside the U.S.

All three ships to which Mr. Richardson, the skater, was assigned had confirmed Covid-19 cases or “Covid-like illness,” according to the CDC. “We deserved as crew members to have our health and safety protected,” he said. “That didn’t happen.”

Rob Zeiger, Royal Caribbean’s global chief communications officer, said the company distributed face masks and encouraged their use.

Cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay in May awaited clearance to unload Filipino crew members.

Photo: ted aljibe/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Cruise line officials said the industry was responding as well as it could to a pandemic that wasn’t fully understood. They said they hoped to check the spread by rigorously cleaning surfaces, distributing masks and hand sanitizer, monitoring temperatures and moving crew into staterooms normally filled with passengers.

“We were doing our level best to keep up with the best medical guidance,” said Mr. Zeiger. “We worked really hard to follow every bit of guidance we got to ensure we kept everyone healthy.”

In some cases, crew members got caught between cruise companies trying to get employees home and public officials in the U.S. and elsewhere trying to both protect crew members and prevent them from infecting people on shore.

Some cruise lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, were reluctant to send crews home too early, saying they hoped that they could return to sailing by summer. The CDC, which has authority over the health issues on ships in U.S. waters, recently said that cruise ships wouldn’t be allowed to sail in those waters until at least Oct. 1. Most companies have postponed cruises until after Oct. 31.

Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s global migration and quarantine program, said his agency is determined to set “a high bar for the [cruise] industry’s ability to detect and respond to Covid-19 at sea.”

In late March, weeks after the first outbreaks on cruise ships and with some passengers still stuck on board, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Eric Jones directed vessels to beef up shipboard medical facilities and quit lingering just outside U.S. territorial waters near Florida. He told cruise companies to seek medical help from the nations where their ships were registered, such as the Bahamas, before seeking U.S. medical assistance.

Many ships sailed away from the U.S., choosing to fly some workers home through airports in other nations or consolidate crew on ships destined for seaports that were still open to them, or which might be soon. Many crew members said health precautions were lax.

Photographer Shu Ito’s small cabin on Holland America’s Noordam.

Photo: SHU ITO

After Carnival’s Ruby Princess ship disembarked passengers, some with Covid-19 symptoms, in Sydney, Australia, in mid-March, employees attended a “sail away” party on an upper deck, where there was music and entertainment, according to employees and video of the incident.

Byron Sodani, a fitness instructor on the Ruby Princess, said ship officials refused to answer his questions about the number of crew members who tested positive or had become seriously ill, even though the crew watched a few ill colleagues taken away by boats. Mr. Sodani said the ship’s head of hotel operations would often end his daily announcements by saying: “After the rain there is always sun.”

“We were in danger and were told nothing,” said Mr. Sodani, who returned home to Italy in late April after being stuck on the ship for about five weeks.

By then, more than 200 Ruby Princess crew members had been infected with Covid-19, and Australian officials documented nearly 1,000 cases of infection on land tied back to the ship’s passengers. At least 28 deaths were traced back to the ship.

Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell said the company provided regular and transparent communication to the crew about the health conditions on the ship.

On March 29, Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas ship, at the time docked in Galveston, Texas, called for medical assistance for a 36-year-old employee who had tested positive for Covid-19 and was having difficulty breathing, according to a police report. Earlier that day, the ship had sent a busload of crew members to a Houston airport, where they took commercial flights.

The Coast Guard is supposed to be told about illnesses aboard ships before they enter port areas. On April 9, the Coast Guard cited the ship for failing to properly notify federal officials about the sick worker, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Paige Hause in Galveston.

Royal Caribbean’s Mr. Zeiger said the ship didn’t report the illness when the ship arrived in Galveston because the crew member appeared to have recovered from influenza symptoms, but alerted the Coast Guard when his health deteriorated the next day.

Authorities in protective gear boarded the Ruby Princess in Australia in April.

Photo: nsw police/Reuters

In mid-April, the CDC ordered cruise ships to better separate and protect workers, and to abide by strict new conditions for using U.S. seaports and airports to get workers home. Crew members weren’t allowed to fly on commercial airlines, enter any airport passenger terminal, stay in a hotel anywhere en route or travel by land on commercial transportation.

The CDC then required each cruise line’s chief executive officer, chief compliance officer and chief medical officer to sign attestations that their employees would adhere to those guidelines for each repatriation. Company officials faced criminal penalties including prison time if rules were broken.

In the wake of the requirements, several crew members said, charter flights from the U.S. were canceled.

Some cruise lines balked at signing the attestations, saying their industry was being singled out for harsh treatment. “The criminal penalties gave us (and our lawyers) pause,” Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley told crew members in an internal communication in early May that was labeled confidential.

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By May, dozens of passenger liners owned by the big three—Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian—had docked or anchored near small, private islands in the Caribbean, where they sorted crew members in preparation to sending them home by ship.

Nearly half of Carnival’s 105 ships were involved in crew consolidation and repatriation, sailing more than 450,000 nautical miles to get 82,000 seafarers closer to their homes in 146 nations, said Carnival’s Mr. Frizzell.

Royal Caribbean shifted some Jamaican crew members from its Liberty of the Seas vessel to its Adventure of the Seas to sail them home. Twenty crew on Adventure of the Seas tested positive, and the Liberty had 45 crew members with Covid or Covid-like illnesses, the CDC data shows.

Dr. Christopher Tufton, Jamaica’s health minister, said every returning crew member is now presumed infected and tested.

The Disney Wonder cruise ship, anchored on right, off Coronado, Calif.

Photo: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

In mid-May, Disney Cruise Line, a unit of Walt Disney Co., sought approval from the CDC to allow crew members who had tested negative from the Disney Wonder, at the time docked in San Diego, to quarantine for 14 days in Disney apartments in nearby Anaheim, then fly home on commercial flights if they remained Covid-free.

Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty said Disney thought “it was an idea worth exploring” because of the difficulty of arranging charter flights and concern about the “mental well-being of our shipboard crew.”

The CDC turned Disney down. Nearly one-third of roughly 740 workers on the ship had tested positive, though most were asymptomatic.

Without an approved plan to get its crew home, the Disney Wonder left San Diego, passed through the Panama Canal and began disembarking crew in Caribbean nations in early June.

In a warning letter sent to the cruise companies on May 11, the CDC listed a litany of problems, including unauthorized crew transfers while outside the U.S., failing to relocate all crew to single-occupancy cabins, not canceling all social gatherings and not shutting down bars, gyms and lounges.

The agency asked companies to investigate and report back. Only two companies, Royal Caribbean and Virgin Voyages, responded in writing.

By the summer, distraught crew members on some cruise lines went on food strikes or took to social media to draw attention to grim conditions on their ships.

Indian crew members on Holland America’s Noordam went on a hunger strike to protest repatriation delays.

Photo: SHU ITO

On June 10, the CDC notified Disney that it was considering citing the company for possible violations while in San Diego, including not fully separating sick and healthy crew members in stateroom assignments. Disney responded that it was doing its best to keep crew separated, but was challenged by the limited availability of vacant staterooms with balconies. In the end, no citation was issued.

Jose Cardozo, a bartender on the Monarch, a ship operated by Pullmantur Cruises in Spain, said in June he had been in limbo for three months. He said his pay was cut off in March, leaving his family in India struggling to pay bills. Mr. Cardozo said he normally sent home all but $50 of his $1,000 in monthly pay, and that his wife had nearly run out of money.

Bartender Jose Cardozo, in front of a Pullmantur cruise ship in Curaçao, said in June he had been in limbo for three months.

Photo: Jose Cardozo

His ordeal, he said, began in April when a fellow crew member with Covid-19 died. The ship docked in Panama for two months, with crew members mostly confined to their staterooms, he said. In late May, the ship sailed to Barbados where Mr. Cardozo was transferred first to one ship, then another owned by Royal Caribbean, a part owner of Pullmantur. Three times, he said, he was told to pack his bags for a flight home, only to be disappointed. He finally made it home in early July.

Royal Caribbean referred questions about the cruise line to Pullmantur, which currently is in insolvency proceedings. A spokeswoman for the company didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Japanese photographer Shu Ito started a six-month contract in February on the Maasdam, operated by Holland America, a Carnival brand. The cruise was canceled in March, and he said his pay stopped in May.

Pandemic Odyssey

It took Shu Ito, a photographer for Holland America, three and a half months to return to Japan on three ships and a plane after the cruise company suspended operations.

Westerdam

Plane

Maasdam

Noordam

7

5

June 24

Lands in Tokyo after flight from Manila via South Korea.

April 28

Mr. Ito transfers to Westerdam.

U.S.

Japan

Seoul

Los Angeles

Tokyo

San Diego

China

Mexico

Honolulu

March 20

Ship doesn’t receive permission for passengers to disembark.

May 22

Mr. Ito transfers to Noordam.

6

3

Manila

Pacific Ocean

March 26

Passengers disembark.

4

Australia

March 13

Holland America suspends its cruises.

2

Tauranga

1

FEB. 1

Mr. Ito embarks on Maasdam.

New Zealand

Maasdam

Westerdam

Noordam

Plane

June 24

Lands in Tokyo after flight from Manila via South Korea.

7

April 28

Mr. Ito transfers to Westerdam.

5

U.S.

Japan

Seoul

Los Angeles

San Diego

Tokyo

China

Mexico

Honolulu

6

3

May 22

Mr. Ito transfers to Noordam.

March 20

Ship doesn’t receive permission for passengers to disembark.

Manila

Pacific Ocean

March 26

Passengers disembark.

4

Australia

March 13

Holland America suspends its cruises.

2

Tauranga

1

FEB. 1

Mr. Ito embarks on Maasdam.

New Zealand

Maasdam

Westerdam

Noordam

Plane

June 24

Lands in Tokyo after flight from Manila via South Korea.

7

April 28

Mr. Ito transfers to Westerdam.

5

U.S.

Japan

Seoul

Los Angeles

San Diego

Tokyo

China

Mexico

Honolulu

3

March 20

Ship doesn’t receive permission for passengers to disembark.

6

May 22

Mr. Ito transfers to Noordam.

Manila

Pacific Ocean

March 26

Passengers disembark.

4

Australia

March 13

Holland America suspends its cruises.

2

Tauranga

1

FEB. 1

Mr. Ito embarks on Maasdam.

New Zealand

Maasdam

Westerdam

Noordam

Plane

Japan

Los Angeles

5

U.S.

Tokyo

7

3

6

Manila

Honolulu

San Diego

4

2

Pacific Ocean

Australia

Tauranga

1

New Zealand

1

FEB. 1

Mr. Ito embarks on Maasdam.

March 13

Holland America suspends its cruises.

2

3

March 20

Ship doesn’t receive permission for passengers to disembark in Honolulu.

March 26

Passengers disembark in San Diego.

4

April 28

Mr. Ito transfers to Westerdam.

5

6

May 22

Mr. Ito transfers to Noordam.

June 24

Mr. Ito lands in Tokyo after flight from Manila via South Korea.

7

Source: Marine Traffic

The ship sailed to Los Angeles where Mr. Ito was transferred to Holland America’s Westerdam, along with crew members from other vessels it operated. Both the Maasdam and the Westerdam had crew members with Covid-19 symptoms, according to CDC data.

Quarantined in a small, windowless room, Mr. Ito said he suffered mentally, and his thoughts “got so negative.” At one point, he knew the ship was moving because he heard its engines revving.

When the ship stopped in late May, he learned he was in Manila Bay and, he said, he was transferred to yet another Holland America vessel, the Noordam. That ship had 13 crew members with Covid-like illness, the CDC data show.

Shu Ito at the airport when he was leaving the Philippines.

Photo: Shu Ito

Finally, in late June, Mr. Ito flew from the Philippines to Japan, where he quarantined in a hotel before he was allowed to go home. The worst part of the ordeal, he said, was “being isolated from the outside for so long.” He tested negative for Covid-19 in Japan.

With cruise companies indicating they might soon return to sailing in European waters, the CDC recently unveiled a new system for vessels operating in U.S. waters. Each ship gets a color-coded rating—red, yellow or green—indicating its coronavirus status. Only ships that earn a green rating can fly crew members on commercial flights.

One requirement for a green rating: Cruise lines must show a ship hasn’t had a Covid case aboard for at least 28 days. The CDC recently said to its knowledge only 20 of the 49 ships planning to operate in U.S. waters have been testing their crews.

As of Aug. 10, the U.S. had given a green rating to 18 ships—15 owned by Royal Caribbean, two by Disney and one by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.

Early this month, European cruise lines were hit with dozens of Covid-19 infections among crew members, complicating efforts to resume voyages.

Write to Rebecca Smith at [email protected], Jacquie McNish at [email protected] and Suryatapa Bhattacharya at [email protected]

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