With Thousands of Crew Still on Board, Cruise Lines Struggle to Get Them Home

Since cruise lines suspended sailing back in mid-March, most cruise ships have sailed empty of passengers for nearly two months.

The same can’t be said for the crew of these ships.

Crew only door on cruise ship

While passengers debarked, many of the ship’s crew stayed onboard. Exact figures for crew still on cruise ships aren’t available, but it is estimated tens of thousands — approaching 100,000  — are still on ships as of last week.

The logistics of getting this many people home at any time is daunting. Doing it in the middle of a global pandemic makes the task even tougher. As well, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has placed specific rules for cruise lines to follow when it comes to getting crew members home via the United States.

The result is that tens of thousands of crew members are still waiting to get home nearly two months after many ships saw their last passengers.

Stringent Rules to Get Crew Back Home

So what is taking so long to get crew members back to their home countries?

Part of the issue seems to stem from the rules that the CDC has put in place regarding how cruise lines in U.S. waters must get their crew back home around the world.

Specifically, the cruise line must do all of the following:

  • Arrange to transport crew members to their final destination (US or overseas) by industry-chartered private transport, industry-chartered private flights, or personal vehicles (no rental cars, taxis, or ride-share services) with measures in place to ensure neither those involved in transport nor other members of the public are exposed to the disembarking individuals.
  • Screen disembarking crew members for symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Ensure crew members with known exposures to COVID-19 are transported separately from those with no known exposure.
  • Provide face coverings, such as a cloth face covering, to disembarking crew members or confirm that they have their own face coverings.
  • Instruct disembarking crew members to stay home for 14 days and continue to practice social distancing after reaching their final destination.
  • Ensure disembarking crew members:
    – will not stay overnight in a hotel before the flight or at any point until they reach their final destination
    – will not use public transportation (including taxis, rental cars or ride-share services) to get to the airport/charter flight
    – will not enter the public airport terminal
    – will not take commercial aircraft after an initial charter flight
    – will not have a transportation layover exceeding 8 hours
    – will not have interaction with the public during their travel home or to their new duty station (e.g., rental car companies, restaurants, other public areas)

Without being able to use typical means to get passengers home, the Miami Herald reports that the CDC said cruise lines told them that arranging private transportation for crew was too expensive.

Since then, legal issues seemed to further lengthen the holdup.

When disembarking crew, the CDC is requiring cruise line executives — the CEO, Chief Ethics and/or Compliance Officer, and the highest-ranking Medical Officer — to sign a form agreeing to the above conditions. According to the form, the penalties for violation “may result in criminal and civil actions for fines, penalties, damages, and imprisonment.”

Given the language about criminal penalties for executives, some hesitated to sign. According to the Herald, Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said in a letter to his staff:

“The CDC will only allow us to disembark crew members if company executives, myself included, are willing to attest — subject to criminal penalties including imprisonment — that we will not use any public transportation and that each crew member will comply with certain conditions after disembarking the ships. We are happy to do all the things they requested, but the criminal penalties gave us [and our lawyers] pause.”

Royal Caribbean has now decided to sign the form in order to get crew members home. Meanwhile, about 5,000 crew members across all cruise lines have been repatriated under these rules.

Cruise lines are now also using their own ships to get crew home. For example, Carnival had 18 ships meet in the Bahamas in late April to move crew from ship to ship. The cruise line is now using many of the ships to ferry crew back home around the world.

According to the company, of its 29,000 crew members on board when it paused sailing, 10,000 had returned home already, 10,000 more will be repatriated via its cruise ships, and 6,000 more will get home by charter flights or other ships. That will leave Carnival with about 3,000 crew members across its fleet to manage the ships.

Royal Caribbean has announced similar plans according to Crew-Center.com.

Risks to Crew and Cruise Lines of Staying on Ships

Empty cruise ship pool
The cruise suspension has left ships empty of passengers.

While the process of getting thousands of crew members home to different countries is complicated, there are risks to the cruise lines — and to crew — of continuing to have thousands on board.

First, while stories about coronavirus cases on cruise ships have lessened with new cruises no longer sailing, the virus is still active. Crew members on various ships have tested positive for COVID-19 since the cruise suspension began. Having more crew on ships means there is more risk of infections.

As well, the mental aspect of being on the ship can’t be overlooked. Having been on a ship for weeks without being sure when they will get home, some crew members are reportedly at a breaking point.

A reported 15 crew members are on a hunger strike until Royal Caribbean shows them proof they are going home. “We started this hunger strike because someone needs to do something,” one crew member said. “The point is our mental health. The mental health is dropping down.”

In response, Royal Caribbean reportedly said the “situation was resolved” and has said counseling services are available.

As of now, it appears that some progress is being made in getting crew home, but it is still anticipated to take weeks before the thousands still on ships are finally back on dry land.

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