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.