Coronavirus: Cruise lines working to get their crews home, but it's slow process
Cruise ships entering and exiting Port Canaveral are periodically dropping off crew members, so they can return to their home countries, port officials say.
It's a process occurring at ports throughout the country — and is strictly regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC instituted a "no-sail order" on cruise lines that initially took effect March 14, and now is extended through July 19, banning passenger cruises.
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Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray says the cruise lines' efforts to get crew members home is "a very, very distinct process." It affects crew members who are not essential to the ships' operations when they are without passengers, as is now the case. Examples include members of the ships' hotel services and entertainment staffs.
At Port Canaveral, the "repatriation" involves a bus or van pulling up to the dock area at the port to transport crew members to an airport, typically Orlando International or Miami International. The crew members then board a charter flight — rather than a commercial flight — to fly home. No crew members get on the bus or the flight unless they are tested to make sure they are not ill.
If the charter flight is canceled for some reason, the crew members are transported back to the port, reboard their ship, and must be in quarantine for 14 days, Murray said.
At any other time, cruise ship crew members are required to remain on the ships, Murray said.
"It's been a very, very slow process," Murray said.
Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Line announced Wednesday that it has instituted a different approach to repatriating crew members — getting them home by cruise ship.
Murray said rumors of people seeing crew members shopping at Walmart or another store are untrue.
"That is not happening. There is no shore leave," Murray told port commissioners at their meeting last week. "Nobody is getting off the ships."
Port Commissioner Jerry Allender said "all precautions are being taken to protect not only the crew, but also the general public in the port area."
In addition to dropping off crew members, cruise ships are temporarily docked at the port to load up with supplies, water and fuel. Port Canaveral continues to collect dockage fees from those ships.
The port harbormaster's latest vessel report lists nine cruise ships either in port or planning to rotate into Port Canaveral by May 11.
Murray said one challenge to the repatriation of cruise line employees is the many nations they live in — primarily in Asia, Europe and South America — and the logistics of cruise lines arranging charter flights for them.
Murray said the competing cruise lines are working with one another on coordinating charter flights.
Carnival's new approach
Meanwhile, Carnival instituted its new approach.
Carnival said 18 of its ships will rendezvous in The Bahamas over the next several days, as the final plans are put in place to sail nine of the ships to repatriate more than 10,000 healthy crew members who remain on board due to restrictions limiting air travel to Africa, Asia, Europe, India and Latin America.
Carnival said the ships have been at various U.S. home ports, getting supplies and fuel for their journeys. Certain crew will join ships using water shuttles off the coast of The Bahamas.
Once completed, nine ships will sail to their destinations with crew members from North American-based ships on board. The remaining nine ships will spend most of their time in anchorage positions in The Bahamas or Panama.
Eventually, all the ships will reduce their crew numbers to safe operational manning levels.
"The safety and well-being of our team members continues to be a top priority," Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy said in a statement. "Given the pause in our operations, we are committed to getting our crew members safely home to their families."
In her statement, Duffy thanked the crew members "for their hard work, patience and understanding during this process. We would also like to thank the government of The Bahamas for their support of this operation, as well as the CDC, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and local port agencies.”
Carnival said crew members who will be returning home have undergone a health check and cleared fit for travel by Carnival's medical team.
The company has been working with immigration officials in arriving countries on an efficient debarkation process.
All crew members have their temperature taken daily, and will do so again during the debarkation process, and follow enhanced operational protocols to ensure the health and safety of the crew.
Before Carnival halted operations on March 13, its fleet of 27 ships had nearly 29,000 crew members on board. Since then time, Carnival has repatriated more than 10,000 crew via flights, and another 10,000 will be traveling on the nine voyages leaving this week.
About 6,000 additional crew will be repatriated by air charters or three ships that already departed from Australia and Long Beach. California.
By the time all these movements are completed, the Carnival fleet will be down to about 3,000 crew members identified for safe operational manning, plus several hundred that Carnival said "will be repatriated as quickly as possible."
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bydaveberman