White House task force quietly softened cruise ship no-sail restrictions after months of industry deference

After the nation’s top disease response agency posted orders keeping cruise ships docked last Wednesday night, extending the ban through August, the White House Coronavirus Task Force stepped in to cut it by 20 days.

When the no-sail order reappeared on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website hours later, its language had been softened: Ships can sail again in July, and an explicit warning that they could be docked even longer had been deleted, according to emails and internal documents obtained by USA TODAY.

“Sorry to do this, but the Office of the Vice President has instructed us to pull the No Sail Order Extension from the website immediately,” a CDC senior official wrote to staff just after 7 a.m. Thursday, the morning after the notice had been posted.

The 11th-hour interference is another example of the administration’s at-times chaotic coronavirus pandemic response and a misguided decision to allow the cruise lines to police themselves during a national health crisis, critics said.

The industry’s most profitable season is the summer, so a shorter time frame on the no-sail order could help it get back out to sea in time to recoup some of its losses. A hint that the order could be extended would undermine that goal.

“Cruise lines don’t want to put that in the air so the American public isn’t discouraged from booking cruises,” said John Hickey, a maritime trial attorney in Miami.

After the first death of a cruise passenger from the coronavirus, the CDC waited more than three weeks to issue its first no-sail order. That came March 14 – the day after the industry’s own Cruise Line International Association pledged to stop sailing.

In those unbridled weeks, dozens of ships set sail, leading to thousands of infections and at least 30 deaths of passengers and crew. The cruise cases are one of the suspected points of entry for coronavirus into U.S. communities.

The cruise lines “were very late in the game, there’s no doubt about it,” Hickey said. “The incentive, we all know, is immediate financial gain instead of doing the right thing. Apparently, they made the decision to risk it and risk health and safety of passengers.”

Even after the industry promised to stop, at least one ship set sail. Eight or more other ships departed in the hours leading up to the announcement, according to a USA TODAY satellite tracking analysis of more than 200 of the world’s largest cruise ships using historical data from VesselFinder, a digital service that tracks the positions and movements of vessels.

Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas left Galveston, Texas, on March 15. Afterward, the CDC said it was notified that COVID-19-positive travelers showed symptoms while on board. Royal Caribbean told USA TODAY there were no passengers on board.

Almost 100 cruise ships wait off the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, with about 80,000 crew members on board, according to the CDC’s latest no-sail order. Fifteen ships are anchored in harbors with known or suspected coronavirus patients aboard.

The cruise ships contribute to the burden on American resources and should be responsible for the health of their own crews, CDC Director Robert Redfield said in last week’s extension of the March 14 order. He gave the cruise lines seven days to come up with a plan to mitigate the spread of the disease on board and provide medical care to infected patients.

The CDC’s original no-sail order was unprecedented in its scope. The federal agency has the broad power to issue no-sail orders that are enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has its own power to prevent ships from entering or exiting ports.

“The CDC has worked tirelessly day and night to control COVID-19 on cruise ships stuck at sea while simultaneously protecting against further introduction and spread of COVID-19 into communities,” Dr. Marty Cetron, director of the CDC’s Global Migration and Quarantine division, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

In the past three weeks, the CDC said, it worked with the Coast Guard to disembark 12,000 passengers from at least eight stranded ships. The Coast Guard reported it oversaw 250,000 passengers removed from cruise ships during that time.

The White House denied Vice President Mike Pence personally ordered that the no-sail extension be watered down.

“That direction was not given by the vice president’s office,” said Devin O’Malley, a Pence adviser, who did not elaborate on where it came from. The CDC also did not provide an explanation.

Carnival, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and other cruise lines contacted by USA TODAY said they have fully complied with guidance from the CDC and World Health Organization as it has evolved over the course of the pandemic.

Bari Golin-Blaugrund, the industry association’s strategic communication director, said cruise lines did their best from the beginning.

“Given the fact that this is a new illness, one that our medical professionals are still working to understand, we have had to learn and adapt in real time, along with the rest of the world, as new information became available,” Golin-Blaugrund said. “There will be a lot to learn from this experience.”

How coronavirus unfolded across the cruise industry

The learning curve had escalated by March 7, when executives from Carnival, the parent company of Princess Cruises, held a telephone briefing with reporters after a meeting with Pence and Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

In that media call, Grant Tarling, Carnival’s chief medical officer, revealed a disturbing discovery: A California man probably had the coronavirus before he boarded Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess ship in February for a Mexico cruise from San Francisco.

Carnival officials said they learned about the man’s condition March 2 after the ship set sail again with more than 62 passengers from the previous cruise still on board. Two days later, the man died in medical isolation at a hospital in Roseville, California. He was the first California resident to succumb to the coronavirus.

During the briefing March 7, as Pence sought to assure Americans that cruise lines were stepping up health and safety measures, at least 18 more ships set sail.

One of them, the Ruby Princess, left Sydney. It, too, was part of the Princess Cruises fleet.

Since its return to Sydney on March 19, Australian authorities have confirmed more than 600 coronavirus cases, and 15 passengers have died. Police launched a criminal investigation of the ship’s docking, which accounts for the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in Australia.

Holland America’s MS Zaandam also set sail March 7. Within days of its departure from Buenos Aires, the ship was stranded at sea with potential cases of coronavirus on board.

Over nearly two weeks, the MS Zaandam became a dramatic saga at sea as it was denied access to several Latin American countries before being allowed to pass through the Panama Canal and dock in Fort Lauderdale on April 2.

Hundreds of passengers reported symptoms of coronavirus, nine initially tested positive and three passengers and one crew member who tested positive died.

The day after Pence’s news conference in early March, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that elderly people and those with an underlying health condition, “need to think twice about getting on a plane, on a long trip, and not only think twice, just don’t get on a cruise ship.”

Later that Sunday, the State Department followed suit, issuing a warning that American citizens, especially those with underlying health conditions, “should not travel by cruise ship,” but it allowed ships to keep sailing.

“CDC notes increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment,” the warning said.

An additional two dozen ships set sail, carrying thousands of passengers, before the government stepped in to stop them.

That included the Norwegian Bliss, which pulled into the Port of New York that Sunday morning after a seven-day cruise to the Bahamas. After disembarking one set of passengers and embarking a new group, it headed toward Nassau, returning March 15.

The CDC reported that passengers from both trips tested positive for COVID-19.

Even in the hours leading up to the industry’s voluntary suspension, the pattern continued. And passengers continued to buy tickets.

Florida residents Candi Neuweiler and Cathy Denson – and 22 friends – had no misgivings when they boarded what turned out to be Disney’s last voyage from Port Canaveral on March 13.

“Our group has eight rooms booked, and nobody dropped,” Denson told a USA TODAY Network reporter minutes before boarding the Disney Dream.

“To be honest with you, we feel like Disney doesn’t want to hurt their reputation, so they’re going to do all they can to keep their ships clean,” Denson said. “And we feel very safe about that.”

There have been no reports of COVID-19 from Denson’s trip, but the CDC reported that another of Disney’s ships, the Disney Wonder, carried passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 on back-to-back cruises leaving port Feb. 28 and March 6.

In response to questions from USA TODAY, Carnival noted that three of its ships set sail on the 13th but did so at least a few hours before the company announced its voluntary ban. Royal Caribbean said two of its ships left before its midnight deadline, which corresponded with that of the industry group.

Some ships left American waters as little as an hour before the clock struck 12 a.m., according to satellite data.

The Cruise Line International Association’s announcement said companies were “focused on the safe and smooth return of those currently at sea onboard ships that will be affected by this decision.”

According to its itinerary, the Carnival Imagination spent a “fun day” at sea on the day the suspension was announced after departing Long Beach, California, the day before. So did its sister ships the Fantasy and Sunrise. All three returned to port March 16.

Though the federal government has cracked down on individual cruise ships over unsanitary conditions, broken sprinkler systems or inadequate lifeboats, it had never before issued a no-sail order for all ships. When it did so, the day after the industry gave it cover, the agency’s director said he had come to believe that cruise ships could introduce, transmit or spread the coronavirus.

“Cruise ship travel,” the order said, “markedly increases the risk and impact of the COVID-19 disease outbreak.”

Critics say mixed messages led to slow response to COVID-19

Outside experts and those in the field said the situation aboard the Diamond Princess in mid-February should have put the cruise industry – and the government – on notice of the dire implications of continuing to sail. Some said that should have been obvious because of the nature of cruising with thousands of others in close quarters.

“We’ve seen concrete evidence that cruise ships are harbors of disease, and COVID-19 can spread very quickly in confined spaces like cruise ships,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University. “It should not have happened.”

For 18 days, the Diamond Princess had the largest number of COVID-19 cases outside the original epicenter in China, according to the CDC. More than 700 passengers contracted the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and since then, 11 have died.

Fauci, one of the leading public health officials charged with informing the public about COVID-19, told the USA TODAY editorial board Feb. 17 that the attempt to quarantine passengers on the Diamond Princess “failed.”

Cruise operators said they initially believed the coronavirus could be contained to the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined in Japan, or perhaps to ships visiting the region around China.

“My guess is that most cruise lines were considering the Diamond Princess an isolated incident since she was cruising in the affected region,” said Peter Knego, a cruise historian. “Some cruise lines were banking incorrectly on the outbreak being contained to Asia.”

Though lines with ships in China started to withdraw cruises quickly, Knego said, the bigger picture was murky.

But by early March, it was clear the industry had another crisis on its hands on another Princess cruise: the Grand Princess.

The 71-year-old man who later tested positive had visited the ship’s medical center Feb. 20 as it returned to California from Mexico. He’d been experiencing acute respiratory illness for about a week. The ship returned to San Francisco on Feb. 21, completing its 10-day voyage. The ship then went back out to sea for its next voyage, planning stops in Hawaii.

During the Mexico voyage, the California man came in contact with a waiter, who tested positive for the coronavirus.

According to Carnival, 60 to 70 passengers aboard the Grand Princess had booked back-to-back cruises: That is, they stayed on the ship after the Mexico trip, then sailed on with it to Hawaii.

As of March 7, according to the CDC, 22 passengers and eight crew members had tested positive for the coronavirus. Officials scrambled to bring the Grand Princess back to port; San Francisco wouldn’t accept it because of the risk of infection to the general public.

Two days later, the ship docked at the nearby Port of Oakland. It took about a week to get more than 3,500 people off the ship – including 2,400 passengers and 1,100 crew members – bring them to quarantine sites or send them home.

At least 103 Grand Princess passengers tested positive, and two died.

Despite the warning signs, some pushed for cruising to continue.

Though the World Health Organization had declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency Jan. 30, it didn’t declare a pandemic until March 11.

Knowledge about the disease’s spread lagged. Carnival, for instance, said it learned from the CDC on March 18 that a passenger on the Imagination’s voyage March 5 had tested positive for COVID-19. In the meantime, the ship had sailed again.

“There were so many mixed signals from the government and industry pundits to carry on as usual, underestimating the high infection rate of the virus and its long incubation period,” Knego said.

In his news conference March 7, Pence praised the value cruises added to American life, saying, “We want to ensure Americans can continue to enjoy the opportunities of the cruise line industry.”

Even after the State Department warned Americans away from cruise travel March 8, the Trump administration continued its positive assessment of the industry and the safety measures it was taking.

“We’re working with them very, very strongly,” Trump said March 9.

He continued to praise their efforts through the announcement of the suspension of cruise travel.

“It is a great and important industry – it will be kept that way!” he said in a tweet on the day of the voluntary suspension, indicating the industry association’s announcement to halt travel for a month was at his behest.

Critics said the delays and mixed signals cost precious time to prevent the spread of coronavirus and contain the issues on cruise ships. By March 31 – more than two weeks after the CDC’s no-sail order – Carnival revealed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings that it still had 6,000 passengers at sea.

“In every aspect of this pandemic federal authorities have been inexcusably behind the curve,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told USA TODAY. “The failure to act on the cruise industry is just another example of it. But back in January and February, it should have started warning and taking steps to demand that cruise ships stop operating because their passengers could be at extreme risk.”

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody opened an investigation into Norwegian Cruise Line on March 23 after reports from the Miami New Times that managers directed sales staff to mislead customers about the risks of coronavirus to prevent them from canceling trips. According to emails obtained by the outlet, staffers were instructed to use prepared remarks including false information about coronavirus being killed by warm weather.

Leaders in the cruise industry argued that until the pandemic declaration by the WHO on March 11, government officials had signaled the coronavirus was a regional, not worldwide, problem.

“When voyages began in early March, South and North America had few confirmed COVID-19 cases,” Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, wrote in an op-ed shared with USA TODAY. “The World Health Organization (WHO) was advising against travel restrictions, and the Americas weren’t affected by travel or health advisories. Travel in all forms continued to bustle across the continents as recently as mid-March – albeit with more personal hygiene reminders.”

Then, within a matter of days, things changed, Ashford wrote.

“Local governments swiftly closed ports globally. Ships previously cleared for docking were abruptly turned away,” he said. “Officials denied repeated requests for access and assistance, and the world shut itself off, leaving ships stranded at sea to make it on their own, which isn’t sustainable.”

There had been earlier signs of trouble docking. One of Holland America’s ships, the Westerdam, was turned away from multiple ports in February. Finally, the government of Cambodia allowed the ship to dock.