Coronavirus: Being marooned on board takes mental toll on cruise ship workers

The Celebrity Infinity Cruise ship in Miami on March 14, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MIAMI (BLOOMBERG) - Ms Lauren Carrick and fiance Joe Harrison haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks. The two dancers on Celebrity Cruises' Infinity say being held aboard ships for almost two months has left them emotionally drained.

"I cried all day," said Ms Carrick, 29. "We need to have alcohol to sleep - that's how bad it is. We're worried, tense, stressed out. We just want to get home."

Ms Carrick and Mr Harrison are among the more than 90,000 cruise workers in US waters stranded on ships two months after the coronavirus pandemic began forcing cruise lines to halt operations and repatriate crew. While companies work through a thicket of shifting rules on returning workers to their home countries, recent deaths of crew have shaken the industry and underscored concern about mental health.

"It's a very stressful situation," said Mr Fabrizio Barcellona, assistant secretary for seafarers at the International Transport Workers' Federation, which represents local unions. "The prolonged periods they have to stay on board can create a situation of unrest. People can become distressed and that can create flash points."

Carnival's Princess Cruises said on Sunday a 39-year-old crew member from Ukraine died after leaping off its Regal Princess in the port of Rotterdam. The ship's crew was in the process of being repatriated, the company said in an e-mailed statement.

Another worker was found dead in his cabin on the Carnival Breeze, unrelated to Covid-19, the company said. Carnival, the world's largest operator, said it was not providing details of the death out of respect for the worker's family.

Royal Caribbean Cruises, the No. 2 line and owner of Celebrity Cruises, said a crew member went overboard from its Jewel of the Seas about two weeks ago.

Crew members have said the reported deaths have rattled them and dampened morale, said Ms Krista Thomas, a former Norwegian Cruise Line guest manager who is operating two Facebook pages for stranded crew and their families. In recent days, several workers have told her in direct messages that they are suicidal, she said.

"Many of these people have been isolated in their small cabins for 21 hours a day and they're breaking down from the loneliness and stress," said Ms Thomas, who operates the pages from Vancouver, Canada. "Many have been told to pack quickly to leave, and then their charter flights get cancelled. Those highs and lows are taking their toll."

The cruise line operators say government policy changes and travel restrictions have complicated efforts to get crew home. More than 124 cruise ships with 94,600 workers aboard are underway or at anchor in US waters, the US Coast Guard said on Monday (May 11).

"That one simple question - how do we get you home? - turns out to be incredibly complex to answer," Mr Michael Bayley, chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean International, wrote in a letter to crew members this month. "Each country has rules and regulations for who can travel home, and how, and when. But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, those rules have gone in all different directions - and they frequently change without notice."

About 15 countries won't allow their citizens to return home at all amid the pandemic, said Mr Bayley.

About 7,100 Filipino crew on 20 ships were anchored in Manila Bay as of last week, awaiting government testing and clearance to return home, the Philippine Coast Guard said. Many have been confined to their cabins for at least two weeks, according to crew and some operators. They will be quarantined 14 more days before leaving the vessel, the Coast Guard said in an e-mail.

Royal Caribbean International has said all 25,000 crew members on its ships have completed 14 days of in-room quarantine and are now practising social distancing. While the company has repatriated about 9,100 seafarers, plans are still being made for the others, who come from 60 different countries, Mr Bayley said in the letter.

Carnival has also cited port closures and travel restrictions as roadblocks to getting crew back on land. The operator repatriated 20,000 workers last month, leaving 52,500 waiting to go home as of Friday, according to Mr Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival, which employs about 90,000 crew on 105 cruise ships.

The business shutdown for many cruise operators began in earnest on March 14, when the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first-ever no sail order for all cruise ships in US waters.

The order banned passengers from boarding and required lines to come up with plans to contain Covid-19 infections. Since February, more than 30 cruise voyages have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks, according to the CDC website.

Last month, the CDC updated requirements that called for cruise company executives to guarantee that seafarers would be flown home on charter flights and other private transport. Under the rules, crew should not use public airport terminals or transportation to avoid the risk of spreading infections.

Travel restrictions have also meant that in some cases, workers are shuffled from one ship to another before they can set food on land again.

Ms Carrick and Mr Harrison, both from the UK, were moved to another Celebrity ship, the Reflection, a few days ago. They were told to pack to transfer to yet another ship on Monday, but were given a last-minute option to remain on their current ship and then get on a charter flight to the UK next week.

They chose the flight and have also made another important decision. After dancing on ships for more than six years, this will be their last voyage.

"This whole experience has been a nightmare," said Ms Carrick. "I can't even think of coming back to a ship."

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