Cruise lines returning Caribbean crew stranded by COVID-19

After weeks of delayed efforts to repatriate crew members to their home countries amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, cruise companies are embarking on a Caribbean-wide tour to drop off stranded — and now unemployed — workers.

But not everyone is happy with the arrangements — or leaving it up to the cruise lines to determine if workers are infected.

The repatriation of 85 Haitian nationals to northern Haiti on Tuesday created consternation on social media, as the workers onboard Royal Caribbean International’s Adventure of the Sea and Vision of the Seas ships were allowed to disembark in the port of Labadee and head home without the Haitian government’s required quarantine and COVID-19 testing.

And in Grenada, the country’s prime minister and tourism minister have lashed out at cruise companies, accusing them of violating an agreement to contribute toward the cost of quarantine for their returning workers.

The ”government is now single-handedly bearing the cost of almost [$74,000 US] to provide these facilities because the cruise lines have not accepted responsibility, despite earlier agreement to do so,” Prime Minister Keith Mitchell said in a national address Sunday.

The repatriations come amid growing desperation among stranded crew members, who have been trapped at sea indefinitely since the cruise industry shut down on March 13 after repeated outbreaks of COVID-19 on ships.

In recent weeks, at least two crew members have died after jumping overboard. Several crew members of Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas cruise ship, which has docked at PortMiami this week, told the Miami Herald that they are on a hunger strike until the company proves it is sending them home.

Caribbean repatriations by ship

After telling crew members for weeks that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had banned crew repatriation flights, Royal Caribbean executives finally agreed on May 3 to sign the required legal agreement with the agency to repatriate crew on charter flights.

Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley initially announced that people from several countries would be flown home from the U.S., but so far the company has only agreed to repatriate 20 people using the CDC process — all U.S. citizens. In a letter to crew on May 8, Bayley said some international crew will be flown home from Barbados instead of the U.S.

The company said it will use its ships to repatriate citizens of St. Kitts, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, Trinidad, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

In contrast, Carnival Corporation has agreed to repatriate 998 people on flights to foreign countries from the U.S.; Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has agreed to repatriate 3,542 people; and Disney Cruise Line has agreed to repatriate 1,190 people. MSC Cruises has not agreed to repatriate anyone from the U.S.

No testing for Haitians

Royal Caribbean’s repatriation of the Haitian nationals Tuesday was the result of weeks of negotiations with the Haitian government, which closed all borders after registering its first confirmed cases of the coronavirus on March 19.

In its correspondence with the government, provided to the Herald, Royal Caribbean insists that the crew members “are healthy” and have undergone a quarantine of a minimum of 14 days on the ship or longer.

None, however, have actually been tested for COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease caused by the virus and currently ravaging through the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Haiti, which has 209 registered COVID-19 cases and 16 deaths as of Tuesday, is starting to see a rapid rise in infections. The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, has registered 10,900 cases and 402 deaths. The Adventure of the Seas is expected to drop off some crew in La Romana in the Dominican Republic before heading to Jamaica to do the same.

Haiti’ s protocol currently calls for all returning citizens to be quarantined — at their own expense — for 14 days, and to provide proof that they have tested negative for COVID-19 before being allowed back in.

In response to the Herald’s inquiry on why Haiti is not requiring the ship workers to undergo testing and quarantine, Dr. Ernst Robert Jasmin, the health ministry director for northern Haiti, said he personally accompanied the health team to welcome back the crew members who had spent “more than 40 days confined on board the boat under medical supervision.”

“They each have a medical certificate, but the [regional and port authority health teams] carried out the usual checks at the reception and collected the contact details of each passenger while reminding them of the prevention instructions,” Jasmin said. The usual check consists of taking temperatures.

Yvrose Pierre, deputy mayor of Cap-Haitien, which oversees the port, said the health director also relayed this to her. “They’ve never left the boat and no one went on board. They took their temperatures and they don’t have a fever.”

Still, she was under the assumption that crew members had actually been tested for the virus.

“They should have been tested before they left,” Pierre said. “Normally, they should have been placed in quarantine, tested and allowed to go home afterward.”

There is no reason to think that any of the workers, who according to the letter also underwent temperature checks, are infected. But with the number of cases of COVID-19 rapidly spreading in the region in the last two months, some countries have become overly cautious in opening their borders to let stranded nationals back, out of fear they could further spread the disease.

Asked about COVID-19 testing, Royal Caribbean spokesman Jonathon Fishman said the company had “successfully repatriated nearly 15,000 crew members and we are working with governments and health authorities around the world on our plans.” The majority of Royal Caribbean crews will be repatriated by the end of May, he added.

Grenada says it was stiffed by cruise companies

Jamaica last week placed 75 ship workers in quarantine after welcoming them back last week. Among the returnees were 43 crew members of the Royal Caribbean’s Marella Discovery 2, who had been denied the right to disembark by the government when the vessel was in Jamaican waters on April 2.

Grenada currently has 21 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 13 recoveries and no deaths. On Sunday, the prime minister announced that he will allow some businesses to reopen and operate between 8 am. and 5 p.m.

That same day both he and Tourism Minister Clarice Modeste addressed the issue of the returning cruise ship employees. In a video address, Modeste said her ministry had been approached by three cruise lines, Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line and MSC Cruises, to discuss arrangements for the repatriation of Grenadian crew. The dates of arrival were set for May 21 and 25.

The government gave its OK and established a protocol that includes mandatory quarantine, medical checks and testing, and three meals per day. “As both quarantine and testing had a cost, we agreed that the cruise lines would contribute [$37 US] per day toward the quarantine,” Modeste said.

She added that she soon heard from “the media and other sources that there were two cruise ships in the Caribbean waters and that they were due to arrive in Grenada on 9 and 10 of May.”

“Official contact was made with us on short notice and approval was given in spite of the late notice,” she said. “Hours before the arrival of the first ship, we were informed that they would not pay the contribution to the quarantine. In the interest of our citizens, we said bring them home, regardless. No money has been paid to the Ministry of Tourism on behalf of any cruise ship worker.”

In a statement, the Grenada government information agency said it gave Carnival Corporation permission to repatriate 26 employee-nationals from the Carnival Glory ship, and 18 crew member nationals from the Caribbean Princess ship over the weekend.

The cruise company agreed to provide up-to-date medical records for all crew members including COVID-19 test results taken 24 to 48 hours prior to ships’ arrival. Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell said that “in this case and others, testing has been part of the repatriation process.”

In welcoming the crew home, Modeste, the Grenada tourism minister told the crew that putting them in mandatory quarantine “is for the safety of family and country. It will continue until things change.”

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

Taylor Dolven is a business journalist who has covered the tourism industry at the Miami Herald since 2018. Her reporting has uncovered environmental violations of cruise companies, the impact of vacation rentals on affordable housing supply, safety concerns among pilots at MIA’s largest cargo airline and the hotel industry’s efforts to delay a law meant to protect workers from sexual harassment.

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