Cruise News: Courts & COVID

My snapshot of the current cruise industry (see part one here) would be sadly wanting if I failed to note that Princess Cruise Lines, fined a record $40 million in 2017 for what the US Department of Justice called “environmental crimes,” has failed to mend its wicked ways.

The 2017 conviction was for dumping oil from five of its vessels into the ocean. As Jim Walker of Cruise Law News explains:

The case is commonly referred to as the “magic pipe” scandal where engineers fabricated a metal pipe to secretly bypass the oily water separation systems on Princess cruise ships to dump millions of gallons of lubrication/engine oil from the ship’s bilges.

Picture of Princess Cruise Lines vessel

Princess pled guilty and was fined, as noted above, but the sentence also included a probation period for all Carnival-owned cruise lines during which:

Carnival-related cruise line vessels trading in U.S. ports were required to comply with a court approved and supervised environmental compliance plan (ECP), including audits by an outside and independent third-party auditor (TPA) and oversight by a Court Appointed Monitor (CAM).

Carnival has been caught breaching the terms of this probation twice — first in 2019, when it was convicted of six violations including, as NPR reported:

…the dumping of plastic mixed with food waste in Bahamian waters. The company also admitted sending teams to visit ships before the inspections to fix any environmental compliance violations, falsifying training records and contacting the U.S. Coast Guard to try to redefine what would be a “major non-conformity” of their environmental compliance plan.

Carnival was fined an additional $20 million and CEO Arnold Donald was admonished by US District Judge Patricia Seitz:

You not only work for employees and shareholders. You are a steward of the environment. The environment needs to be a core value, and I hope and pray it becomes your daily anthem.

Those hopes and prayers went unanswered, however, as this January, the company — which, you’ll recall, is behind 42% of cruise vessel calls in Sydney this season — was fined an additional $1 million for failing to “establish and maintain an independent internal investigative office.”

Walker of Cruise Law News feels this latest fine will “accomplish little in encouraging Carnival and its brands…to change their illegal and morally reprehensive conduct.”


Sixth Wave

Can you talk about the cruise industry without discussing COVID? I think not. But let’s start with the situation here in Nova Scotia.

In the week of April 19-25, the most recent for which data is available, 24 people died from COVID in this province. As Tim Bousquet at the Examiner reported, this was the highest weekly COVID death toll we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic. (And as I pointed out a few weeks ago, stats like that show why this particular coronavirus — and its mutations — are still a long way from becoming just another seasonal flu).

Hospitalizations were up week/week but lab-confirmed cases of COVID were down, prompting Deputy Chief Officer of Health Dr. Shelley Deeks “declare that the latest wave of the pandemic [that would be the sixth wave, considered to have begun on March 1 and dominated by the BA2 sub-variant of the Omicron strain] has peaked.”

But as Bousquet noted, deaths tend to lag behind new cases by two or three weeks so “we’ll likely see 20+ new deaths over each of the next couple of weeks.”

To paraphrase the Allman Brothers, we may be acting like COVID is over but it ain’t through.

That’s the situation in Nova Scotia — so how do things look on the cruise ships?


Voluntary participation

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lifted COVID restrictions on cruise ships on January 15 but recommended that vessels operating in US waters “choose to participate in CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships.” (The CDC dropped its advisory against cruise travel in March.)

Cruise lines opting into the program (and the big three all have) are “required to follow all recommendations and guidance as a condition of their participation in the program.” (What are the chances, though, when $61 million in fines isn’t enough to get Carnival to follow the actual law?) The consequence of opting out of the program is that a cruise line’s vessels are labeled “Gray” on the CDC’s Cruise Ship Color Status webpage, telling the public the CDC has “neither reviewed nor confirmed” the operator’s health and safety protocols.

The “Color Status” system assigns vessels a color indicating the extent to which COVID is present on the vessel:

CDC Cruise Color Status

Source: CDC


Cruise ships are also assigned a “vaccination status”:

CDC Cruise Ship Vaccination Status

Source: CDC

(Being “up to date” with your vaccines means having received “all doses in the primary series and one booster when eligible.”)

The CDC has a Cruise Ship Status Dashboard where you can look up the vessels of participating lines and see their vaccination status and the extent of COVID aboard.

I just looked up the Seven Seas Navigator, the Norwegian Cruise Line vessel that docked in Sydney on Sunday, and discovered that as of May 2, its color status was Yellow, meaning there was COVID aboard but “less than 0.3% of total passengers and/or crew” was infected. Yellow means the reported cases of COVID-19 are below the threshold for an investigation, but the CDC is monitoring the situation.

We know from this CBC New Brunswick article that the vessel was in the Orange zone April 21 — a week out from Saint John, where it docked on April 28 — but with 115 passengers and 340 crew members aboard, the “Orange” status could have meant as few as two cases. Between April 21 and May 2, when the vessel docked in Sydney, it seems the outbreak was contained:

Cruise Ship Status Dashboard, CDC

Screenshot captured 3 May 2022


According to the dashboard, though, as of May 2, 53 of the 92 vessels participating in the CDC’s COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships were category Orange — meaning reported cases have reached the threshold for an investigation. (That includes the Viking Octantis, which was supposed to be the first cruise ship of the local season but couldn’t dock in Louisbourg on April 21 due to high winds.)

That’s 63% of all vessels in the program.

And of course, at the end of December and into January, there was a surge of COVID cases on cruise ships, thanks to the Omicron variant, which caused the CDC to tell travelers to avoid traveling on cruise ships “regardless of their vaccination status.” According to the CDC, during the last two weeks of December 2021, 5,013 COVID-19 cases were reported on cruise vessels operating in US waters, up from just 162 cases during the first two weeks. A number of lines canceled cruises or changed itineraries as a result.



So COVID is stowing away on cruise ships despite high vaccination rates, a fact acknowledged by the Canadian government which states:

The chance of being infected with COVID-19 on cruise ships is very high, even if you’re fully vaccinated.

Getting sick while you’re traveling — especially if you’re on vacation — is never fun, but getting COVID on a cruise ship sounds like a very particular type of hell. Even if your symptoms are mild, spending days quarantined in a cabin which may or may not have windows sounds pretty miserable. And it has to be even worse for crew, who share quarters and can’t effectively quarantine. (But really, on cruise ships, everything is worse for crew, which may be why there is talk of a crew shortage in the industry.)

The bottom line for me is that passengers boarding cruise ships today know the risks they run and choose to run them — see the man interviewed in this article about an outbreak on a Carnival cruise from Miami to Seattle who tells the reporter he’s been on seven cruises since August and there were COVID-19 positive passengers on all of them. His gripe with Carnival is that their response to the outbreak on the Miami-Seattle cruise was “chaotic.”

As to the extent of the threat cruise passengers pose (COVID-wise) to the “shoreside public,” I need to do more research before I can venture a response to that.

But I do think there’s something to be said about the advisability of a port putting all its eggs in the cruise basket because even people who don’t care about the industry’s god-awful environmental and labor practices have to admit we just lost two full seasons — and the challenges posed by COVID aren’t over yet.