Coast Guard tells cruise lines they pose a risk of COVID-19 spread

Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Vista and Royal Caribbean International’s Enchantment of the Seas are docked in Galveston on Monday, April 6, 2020. United States Coast Guard officials informed both cruise lines their ships pose a risk for the spread of COVID-19.


The U.S. Coast Guard has told operators of four Galveston-based cruise ships that the vessels present an inherent, unacceptable risk of spreading COVID-19 and ordered them to form their own plans for caring for sick crew members.

There are no passengers aboard the ships, but they each are still carrying thousands of crew members.

“I have determined your vessel poses an unacceptable risk of medical emergency due to the inherent and high probability of transmission of COVID-19 aboard, which presents a risk to the safety of the personnel aboard your vessel, first responders and the port,” Coast Guard Capt. K.D. Oditt, of the Houston-Galveston sector, wrote in identical letters sent Friday to Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line.

The letters told the cruise companies to prepare to treat sick crew members aboard the ships, and to arrange “commercial resources” to transport critically ill crew members from ships to medical facilities.

The Coast Guard also ordered companies to identify medical facilities that would accept evacuees from the ships.

Since March 13, two Carnival Cruise Line and two Royal Caribbean Cruises ships have rotated berths at the Port of Galveston while the companies wait out a return to business.

Royal Caribbean on March 30 confirmed two crew members aboard Liberty of the Seas had contracted coronavirus. One was evacuated from the ship, but the other was left aboard and isolated, officials said.

The ship has been at anchorage off the Texas coast for the past week.

There have been no updates about the status of the crew members aboard the Liberty of the Seas, but Oditt’s letter makes clear the Coast Guard is concerned about a large outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the ship.

A similar order was sent to ships off the Florida coast 10 days ago. That letter suggests cruise ships with sick crew members aboard seek aid from the countries whose flags they fly under. Royal Caribbean ships are flagged and registered in the Bahamas. Carnival ships are flagged in Panama.

Oditt’s order doesn’t mention seeking help from other countries but does urge the cruise lines to find private companies, including ship tenders, chartered standby vessels, chartered airlifts and chartered ambulances that could be used in evacuations. It also does not say which hospitals, if any, have agreed to take sick people from the ships.

In addition to providing the medical plans, the cruise ships are required to report any passengers displaying flu-like symptoms to the Coast Guard. The cruise lines must also notify the Coast Guard before attempting to evacuate critically ill people from a ship.

Violations of Oditt’s orders could lead to fines of as much $25,000 or Class D felony charges, according to the letter.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival confirmed they had received the letters and were complying with the orders.

A University of Texas Medical Branch spokesman could not immediately confirm Monday whether its hospitals in Galveston County had agreed to receive patients from the cruise ships if evacuations were necessary.

The U.S. Coast Guard did not respond to questions about the letter by deadline on Monday.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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(9) comments

Miceal O'Laochdha

There is no need for these ships to be berthed dockside in Galveston during this time. They can anchor at the Fairway Anchorage (offshore) and they can be re-supplied by launch boat, as is typical with cargo ships that are off charter. They should indeed make all commercial arrangements themselves for launch boats and helicopters, again as is typical for cargo and subsea construction ships. It is eminently appropriate that they seek any governmental support that they may require from their home countries (Flag States). Any other vessel laid up at a POG wharf would be paying the full lay vessel Dockage Tariff but, I suspect the cruise ships have been given either a discounted rate of have had their Dockage Tariff waived altogether; and I would encourage the GDN reporter to investigate if that is indeed the case.

Rick Altemose

Worse yet, there was almost no security at the docks when I was there this morning. I hope that there will not be a serious breakout of the disease in the next few months on one or more of these ships (a silly wish, I know- cruise ships are petri dishes for the coronavirus), but if worse comes to worse, do you figure the employees cooped up on the ships will wait to die in their staterooms, or will they break out into Galveston proper?

Charlotte O'rourke

The Wharves Board no longer does its job of oversight. It has become useless. The Board doesn’t vote on major policy issues so the public will never know what’s actually happening.

Lisa Keeler

Didn't one or more of the ships send crew home this past weekend? There was a social media post of someone saying they saw several charter buses leaving the cruise docks loaded with passengers.

Brian Tamney

not sure if it is practical for these new cruise ships to take supplies at anchor, built more as hotels than ships and dont know i fthey have the cargo gear to load at sea. while they sent some crew home there is a lot of people left, key word being people. i am sure most of them would rather go home but that is not always a possibility today, i know the philipines where a lot of them come form have a 2 week quarantine at manila then no internal travel for them to get home. my guess is thye will spend most of there tiem at anchor, but will have to come in occassionally at which point they arent allowed off the vessel so not much for the community to worry about.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Quite certain they can take stores at anchor. No cargo gear required. They have stores' cranes rigged in the overhead in way of the sideports where stores can be taken and trash can be back-loaded to launches. The foreign crews have contracts that require them to work a full tour of duty and then their travel costs for repatriation are compensated by the shipowner. if the shipowner choses to send them home before their contract is completed, they are not only due travel costs but also one, and some cases, two months of salary; so the shipowners would prefer to keep them onboard. In some cases since this crisis began, some unscrupulous cruise lines (we know who they are) have tried to get the Filipinos, Romanians, etc. to sign away their rights to the severance wages under the pretense that the letter they were asked to sign was just a formality to ensure their travel costs would be paid. This scheme was exposed about 3 weeks ago. The Safety Manning Certificate from each ship's Flag State identifies each mariner by position title that is required to be aboard the ship in order for it to get underway. That would be a total of closer to 20 than 50 persons. All the other hundreds of personnel onboard are superfluous when the ship is not operating with passengers but, it costs the shipowner too much to send them home. So they sit and wait.

Brian Tamney

if those overhead cranes extend beyond the hull might be possible . as far as the creew the fact is a lot of them cannot get home right now iff they wanted too, there is multiple seafarer and maritime organizations working on getting safe passage for crew. safe manning certificate is a bare minimum standard, no captain in his right mind would take a huge cruise ship to sea with 20 people onboard, i know i wouldnt risk my license doing it.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Your license is safe Brian; no cruise line would hire an American mariner to put his license in the rack in the first place. Too expensive. But since all the "huge" tankers, box ships, and ro-ro's that are as big or larger than these passenger ships are sailing around the world with a typical complement of 9 officers and maybe 12 unlicensed, size of vessel doesn't drive the size of crews. Oh, and overhead beam and trolley stores cranes are specifically designed to be extended thru the sideport beyond the hull profile, that is how they work. These type of vessels often also have deck-mounted storing cranes and, of course, supply boats either with a fixed crane or with one temporarily mounted on the back deck is always an option. Bottom line is that these ships do not need to lay dockside, especially if they are not paying full Dockage Tariff to the POG.

Gary Miller

Not a problem. I will consider a cruise when the contract guarantees cures and rich compensation for each and all illnesses possible. Including dandruff, bad breath and jock itch.

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