The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ban on cruises will expire Oct. 31 — over the objections of the CDC’s director, a source familiar with the situation told McClatchy.
CDC Director Robert Redfield wanted to extend the “no-sail order” to February 2021 but was overruled during a meeting Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House, the source said, following weeks of industry lobbying. Instead, the extension put in place Wednesday will run until the end of October.
This means that some of South Florida’s cruise economy — $7 billion linked to PortMiami, the busiest cruise port in the world — could be up and running again as soon as Nov. 1. Cruise companies can have ships ready to welcome passengers again in as quickly as 30 days, Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said previously.
But a Nov. 1 restart date is far from certain. On at least one other occasion, the White House has watered down a CDC no-sail order that was then extended.
In April, the White House shortened a CDC extension into July by 20 days, and deleted a line in the order warning it could be extended again, USA Today reported. In July, the CDC extended the no-sail order again through Sept. 30.
The White House rejected Redfield’s plan amid increasing tensions between President Donald Trump and the CDC director. The president has publicly scolded Redfield in recent weeks over his guidance on the effectiveness of masks and the likely timeline for mass distribution of a coronavirus vaccine. The White House’s decision to block the CDC’s order was first reported by Axios.
The CDC first banned cruises in U.S. waters in March after COVID-19 outbreaks on several cruise ships. According to a Miami Herald investigation, at least 3,895 cases of COVID-19 and 110 deaths have been linked to 86 ocean-going ships, or one-third of the global cruise fleet. The cruise companies have published plans they say will prevent much of the passenger and crew deaths, hospitalizations and stranded ships the industry experienced in the fall and summer, but the CDC has not yet allowed them to resume passenger operations.
Some crew members who have been stuck at sea since March remain on cruise ships waiting to be repatriated without pay. Workers continue to contract COVID-19 aboard laid-up ships, according to CDC data obtained by the Miami Herald via a Freedom of Information Act request. At least seven ships in U.S. waters during the month of August reported COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses to the CDC that month, according to the most recent available information.
Cruise companies have reported record losses and laid off much of their land-based workforce in Florida, and businesses that support the industry — longshoremen, shuttle companies, travel agents — have had their hours reduced or eliminated completely. Without federal unemployment assistance that the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity decided to end last week, jobless Floridians are now getting a maximum of $275 of unemployment assistance per week. A second federal relief bill that could provide a boost has stalled in the U.S. Senate.
This month cruise companies, in conjunction with state and local politicians, stepped up efforts to pressure the CDC to allow cruises to restart in the U.S., the industry’s most lucrative market. Carnival Corporation and MSC Cruises have already restarted cruises in Italy.
On Monday, longshoremen and travel agents gathered at PortMiami’s Terminal D to urge the CDC to allow cruises to resume.
Longshoremen responsible for moving goods on and off the ships have suffered severe cuts in working hours. In June, 50 passenger-less cruise ships were still floating in and around U.S. waters and many were visiting PortMiami regularly to refuel and restock. Since then, all but 31 have left. Ships outside U.S. waters do not have to report onboard illnesses to the CDC, which began publishing illness data in June.
President of the Longshoremen’s International Association Local 1416 Torin Ragin said the workers are willing to do whatever it takes to get cruises started again. The union has been checking workers’ temperatures before shifts since March.
“These lines have a lot at stake,” he said. “We are operating under the assumption that they don’t want to shut down again. They will use every precaution.”
Travel agent Jeannette Pineiro who runs a business at the port coordinating transportation and lodging for passengers and crew, said she has let go of her 350 employees. She said she received about $500,000 in federal aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, which lasted for six weeks. She estimates she will need about 15 days to get her business up and running again once the CDC gives the green light.
“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, it’s not perfect,” she said. “But it’s the lifeline of Miami.”
Earlier this month, executives from Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises and Miami-Dade commissioners urged the CDC to allow cruises to resume during a a public meeting. Commissioners did not ask the executives any questions about safety or lessons learned during the pandemic.
Last week, cruise companies Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sent the CDC a list of protocols the companies say they will implement, including requiring COVID-19 tests for passengers between 24 hours and five days before boarding. The cruise industry’s lobbying group, Cruise Lines International Association, sent a separate, less-specific list of promised protocols to the agency.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez chimed in on Saturday, publishing a statement urging the CDC to let its no-sail order expire.
Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott introduced a bill earlier this month to create a separate task force under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security charged with coming up with a plan to resume cruises.
If cruises are allowed to resume this year, the only passengers will likely be die-hard cruisers, said Kari Halpern, owner of Sunny Destinations travel agency in Brooklyn, New York. They represent about 10% of her customers.
“They are already booked and paid in full for November and December sail dates,” she said in an email. “The rest of my clients are waiting until 2021 when there is a vaccine and masks will not be mandatory on board.”