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Since Monday, thousands of cruise ship crew members have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to disembark in US waters to be repatriated to their home countries.
The majority of approvals are for crew members on Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line ships, most of whom have been living on ships since mid-March when the CDC issued its No Sail order.
Tensions between the CDC and cruise lines played out in public last week after the CDC told the Miami Herald that cruise lines did not want to pay the cost of charter flights to get their employees home.
In a letter to staff Sunday, Royal Caribbean Cruises President and CEO Michael Bayley said that the company was nervous that the CDC regulations stipulated that company executives would be criminally liable if a cruise line's employees did not follow regulations, which prevent the use of most transportation and hotels.
Thousands of cruise ship workers will soon step on dry land for the first time in months, following agreements between embattled cruise lines and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since Monday, the CDC has agreed to let 2,352 cruise workers disembark from ships in US waters after their employers agreed to strict transfer guidelines which prevent the cruise workers from interacting with any members of the public, taking commercial flights or staying in hotels. The rules also hold corporate executives criminally liable if any of their employees don't follow the requirements.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings employees make up the majority of those approved this week with 1,308, followed closely by Disney Cruise Line with 1,031, according to numbers published by the CDC. The remaining 13 come from Royal Caribbean Cruises.
The CDC, NCL and Disney Cruise Line did not respond to requests for comment.
Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Cruises, said the company had already disembarked more than 12,000 crew members through commercial flights, charter flights and direct sailings, and said that "thousands more are going home in coming weeks."
"We are working with governments and health authorities around the world on our plans, and we very much appreciate our crews' patience, understanding and good spirit," Fishman said.
Roger Frizzell, a spokesperson for Carnival Corporation, said the company "recently submitted our proposal into the CDC and have been awaiting its feedback and response."
"As always, our ships will fully comply with the CDC and other health authorities," Frizzell said. "We have already repatriated thousands of crew members, via air charter and on our ships, to their respective home countries around the world."
CDC, cruise lines disagree on cost and legal penalties
Across cruise lines, thousands of workers have been stuck on ships since at least mid-March when coronavirus brought global travel to a halt. On March 14, the CDC announced its first No Sail order, which prevented new passengers from getting on cruise ships in the US. The CDC expanded that order on April 15 to prevent crew members from disembarking at US ports.
Many of these crew members are not being paid, have stopped working, and spend their days sitting in the sun. Some crews, like the Norwegian Gem have seen multiple colleagues die, though there is little official information about which ships have been overtaken by coronavirus.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald via Getty Images
Prior to this week, just 1,311 crew members had been approved to disembark in US waters since April 23, though the CDC says it "stands ready to approve these requests with same-day turnaround" as soon as "cruise lines submit a signed attestation stating that they have complied with requirements to safely disembark their crew members."
Tensions between the CDC and the cruise lines played out in the press last week after the agency accused Royal Caribbean of falsely blaming it for keeping crew members at sea, while secretly complaining about the cost of charter flights.
"Some of the lines have really disappointed us about not cooperating," Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC's director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told the Miami Herald on Friday. "What they've said repeatedly is we can't do that, we can't afford to do that. Their answers are not aligned with the public health needs."
In an April 3 letter to staff shared with Business Insider, Royal Caribbean President and CEO Michael Bayley wrote that the company had recently agreed to comply with the CDC, but said that the criminal penalties had given the company and its lawyers "pause."
"While I have full faith and confidence in you and our suppliers to do the right things ... the legal risk to many people at the company for actions we may not be able to control could not be ignored," Bayley wrote.
"Over the past several days we have discussed our concern with the CDC on the criminal penalties associated with guaranteeing future events that we had little to no control over. We remain hopeful that this language will eventually be adjusted," he wrote.
Several of the ships run by NCL, which has aborted multiple disembarkment missions due to CDC intervention, are expected to dock in Florida on Friday. One crew member on the Norwegian Epic said the captain told crew members that NCL is working to have charter flights ready to gather employees by the time they dock.
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