Thousands of cruise ship crew members remain out at sea

Minyvonne Burke and Shamar Walters

Thousands of cruise ship crew members remain stuck at sea amid the coronavirus pandemic as their companies clash with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over rules to get them home.

Carnival Cruise Line said it has more than 10,000 healthy crew members onboard its ships and is planning to have them home to their respective countries over the next week. About 10,000 crew have already been repatriated, the company said in a news release.

"The safety and well-being of our team members continues to be a top priority," said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. "Given the pause in our operations, we are committed to getting our crew members safely home to their families. We sincerely thank them for their hard work, patience and understanding during this process."

Ryan Driscoll, a resident guest entertainer, has been out at sea since Feb. 23. Driscoll, 26, of Las Vegas, said he was originally on the Seabourn Quest but was transferred to its sister ship, the Odyssey, about a week ago.

The Quest took on European crew members to get them home, he said. People from the United States, Central America and South America were put on the Odyssey, which is anchored off Bridgetown, Barbados.

"It's been very strange," Driscoll told NBC News from his cabin Thursday. "We call it the twilight zone. Everyone's got cabin fever. We've been confined to our cabins now for two weeks."

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Part of the reason crew members have been unable to disembark and travel home is a conflict regarding guidelines issued by the CDC, a situation first reported by The Miami Herald.

Following coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships and the spread of the disease, the CDC extended its No Sail Order, which says cruise line companies must implement plans to get crew members home safely.

The agency will allow crew members to disembark only if the cruise line signs an agreement stating that it has complied with the CDC's requirements, which say the companies need to provide noncommercial transportation.

A CDC spokesperson told The Herald that cruise companies have complained that arranging private transportation for crew members would be too expensive.

Driscoll said that he thinks Seabourn Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., is handling the unprecedented situation the best it can but that he doesn't want to be kept in the dark about what's going on. As of now, he doesn't know when he will be able to head home.

He said he hopes he will be allowed to disembark in Barbados so he can catch a flight back to the U.S. He said he's been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown and is working with the ship's management, as well as the cruise company.

"We're all very frustrated. [We] want to get home, see our families. Especially when every day you're looking out your window and you see land 200 yards away knowing I can leave but I'm not allowed off the ship," Driscoll said.

Carnival Cruise Line said in its statement that 18 of its ships with crew members still onboard will rendezvous in the Bahamas within the next several days as the company finalizes plans to get everyone home.

"Nine ships will sail to their destinations with crew members from North American-based ships on board," the company said. "The remaining nine ships will spend most of their time in anchorage positions in The Bahamas or Panama and eventually all ships will reduce their crew numbers to safe operational manning levels."

Carnival said all crew members who are able to return home have undergone health checks, including temperature checks, and have been cleared by their medical teams to travel.

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Alex Adkins, a Royal Caribbean employee, has been stuck on his ship for weeks with about 1,000 other crew members. The vessel originally left San Juan, Puerto Rico, but couldn't return there because the ports are closed.

The ship, which Adkins asked not to be identified, let guests off in Miami on March 17 while the crew stayed onboard. The vessel is now off the coast of Barbados.

According to Adkins, 25, of Dallas, crew members have been told that the company has sent the CDC its repatriation plans but that either the CDC hasn't responded or the company's request for a charter flight has been denied.

"We've been told that there are 'plans' to get us on these flights. None of these flights so far have been confirmed," Adkins said. "There were two flights this past week that I was supposed to be on that for whatever reason didn't happen."

He said he doesn't blame Royal Caribbean or the CDC. Both Adkins and Driscoll said there have been no known coronavirus cases on either of their ships.

"It's just frustrating that we seem to just kind of be citizens of not our country, but we seem to be citizens of the company that we work for," Adkins said.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement that it has been working closely with health officials to get its crew members home.

"We submitted a plan to the CDC and are awaiting their feedback," the statement read. "We continue to work with all appropriate authorities to establish a safe and secure way for all of our crew members to return home as soon as possible."