NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Carnival Corp, the giant cruise company widely criticized for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, announced on Monday (May 4)that some of its ships may begin sailing again as soon as August.
For months, lawmakers and epidemiologists have blamed Carnival for failing to contain outbreaks on its ships and spreading the virus across the world. Its response to the pandemic is the subject of a criminal investigation by Australian police and a congressional investigation in the United States.
Despite that growing scrutiny, the company's flagship cruise line said that eight of its ships could begin sailing on Aug 1, about a week after a government order banning cruises in the United States is set to expire. Those ships, part of the Carnival Cruise Line brand, are scheduled to depart from ports in Galveston, Texas; Miami; and Port Canaveral, Florida.
It would be only a partial reopening, and the timing could change as the company devises new safety protocols for its cruises. The eight ships that are slated to return to service are a small portion of the Carnival Corp's fleet of 105 vessels. Carnival Cruise Line said voyages on several of its other ships would be canceled through the beginning of October.
Royal Caribbean, the main rival to Carnival, has not set a date for restarting its cruises, though other cruise companies could set sail even earlier than August. A spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruises, Maria Elena, said on Monday that the company intended to "relaunch cruise operations" July 1, though she declined to say where those cruises would take place.
After a series of deadly outbreaks, critics of the cruise industry remain skeptical that the companies have the medical expertise to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened hundreds of cruise passengers over the last four months.
"They've got billions of dollars in assets that aren't earning any income, and they want to get those going as quickly as possible," said Ross Klein, a sociologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada who studies the cruise industry. "And they really continue to be more focused on the economics than on the public health."
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) extended its "no sail order," banning all cruise travel in the US until July 24. A CDC spokeswoman, Caitlin Shockey, said the agency has not consulted with any of the cruise companies on the timeline for restarting cruises.
"We do not have enough information to say when it will be safe for cruise ships to resume sailing," Shockey said.
Over the course of Monday, Carnival Cruise Line backtracked several times as it outlined its plans to start sailing this summer. In an initial statement, the company said it planned to "resume cruises" on the eight ships "beginning August 1."
In a second statement, the company played down the possibility of an Aug 1 start date, saying that "any resumption of cruise operations - whenever that may be - is fully dependent" on discussions with government officials.
A spokesman for Carnival Cruise Line, Chris Chiames, said in a separate email that the exact reopening date would be subject to change.
"There is no assurance of a return on Aug 1," Chiames said. "Our intent was to convey that we will take a phased-in approach, no matter when that it is, and focus resources and new protocols on a limited number of operations."
Asked to list the new safety protocols that the company plans to use in August, Chiames did not provide any specific examples but said the company would conduct enhanced health screenings and provide "additional sanitation."
"These are all things that we are continuing to discuss internally and with government officials and public health experts," he said.
On cruises, passengers live in close quarters, dining together and gathering in large groups for comedy shows and casino nights. For decades, cruise ships have battled outbreaks of norovirus. And during the pandemic, ships have become coronavirus hot spots. In February and March, Carnival Corp fumbled its response to outbreaks on several ships, including the Diamond Princess, where eight people died and more than 700 were infected.
Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said cruise companies hoping to set sail this summer should consider instituting temperature checks and other health screenings for passengers and reducing the number of people on board.
"If you start out with a reduced number of passengers, that's very useful," Schaffner said. "That can have ramifications for all of the activities on the cruise ship."
Since the coronavirus started spreading in Asia, Carnival has been at the center of the pandemic, with outbreaks on at least seven of its ships, including the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, the Costa Luminosa and the Zaandam.
Australian police are investigating whether the staff of a Carnival ship that docked in Sydney misled local authorities about a coronavirus outbreak on board.
And Friday, the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure began investigating the company's response to the virus, asking it to turn over internal communications related to the pandemic.
In addition to the bad publicity, the cruise shutdown has put a financial strain on Carnival.
Since the beginning of the year, the company's share price has plummeted more than 70 per cent. In late March, the company began an effort to raise US$6 billion (S$8.49 billion) by selling stock, bonds and other securities, with a strikingly high interest rate of 12.5 per cent attached to some of those bonds. per cent