No cruise bookings in islands for remainder of 2020; cloudy waters ahead for industry

  • Tribune-Herald file photo Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Pride of America cruise ship is seen June 27, 2017, in port at the Port of Hilo.

  • DAN SPENCER

Although the state welcomed back trans-Pacific travelers without quarantines to island airports on Thursday, provided arriving passengers have tested negative for COVID-19 in the previous 72 hours, the future of the cruise ship industry remains murky.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extended a no-sail order for all cruise liners operating in U.S. waters through Oct. 31. The order continues to suspend passenger operations on cruise ships with the capacity to carry at least 250 passengers.

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“Recent outbreaks on cruise ships overseas provide current evidence that cruise ship travel continues to transmit and amplify the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 — even when ships sail at reduced passenger capacities — and would likely spread the infection into U.S. communities if passenger operations were to resume prematurely in the United States,” said a CDC statement dated Sept. 30.

Until late September, HawaiiPortCall.com listed a Nov. 3 port call in Hilo for the Pride of America cruise ship, but that listing has since been deleted from the website.

“The cruise industry submitted its safety protocol plans and is seeking approval from the CDC,” said state Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara in an email. “The HDOT Harbors Division is awaiting further discussions with the cruise lines to match state and county requirements for a safe re-start of cruise operations. Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates the Pride of America, has stated it is suspending all sailings until at least Dec. 1.

“There are currently no scheduled cruise bookings in Hawaii for the remainder of 2020.”

A cruise ship-related COVID-19 outbreak hit particularly close to home early, as 72-year-old Catherine Heflin and her 84-year-old husband, Richard Heflin, both residents of Aiea, Oahu, contracted the novel coronavirus on a tour of Asian ports aboard Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess.

Catherine Heflin, who became critically ill, was removed from the ship in Yokohama, Japan, and was hospitalized there for two and a half months, according to her son, Hilo attorney Bill Heflin.

Richard Heflin showed no outward symptoms but tested positive for the virus after he was found to have a fever after being evacuated from the ship Feb. 17. The retired career soldier was flown on a military transport flight back to the U.S. and shuttled from Travis Air Force Base to two civilian hospitals and a military hospital in California before being allowed to return home.

It’s not the first time a cruise liner has been a hot spot for an outbreak of an infectious disease. This year, Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess and Royal Caribbean International’s Grandeur of the Seas had norovirus outbreaks in February and March, respectively.

“Cruise ships have been kind of a petri dish for decades,” said Dan Spencer, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Travel Industry Management. “There have been all kinds of disease outbreaks on cruise ships, so they’re no stranger to this.

“They’ve made strenuous efforts to more deeply clean the cruise ships and assure passengers that conditions are safe. They just need to redouble those efforts now because there’s more fear now.”

According to the Cruise Line Industry Association’s most recent Economic Impact Study, cruise activity in the United States supported more than 420,000 American jobs and generated $53 billion annually in domestic economic activity prior to the pandemic. Each day of the suspension of U.S. cruise operations results in a loss of up to $110 million, and thousands of jobs have been lost while cruise ships aren’t sailing.

The impact of the suspension has been particularly profound in states that depend heavily on cruise tourism, including Hawaii, Florida, Texas, Alaska, Washington, New York and California.

CLIA, which represents 95% of global ocean-going cruise capacity, on Sept. 21 announced what it called mandatory core elements of a strong set of health protocols to be implemented as part of a phased-in, highly controlled resumption of operations.

Those elements include COVID-19 testing of all passengers and crew prior to departure; mandatory mask wearing by all passengers and crew aboard and during excursions whenever physical distancing can’t be maintained; physical distancing in terminals, aboard ships and during shore excursions; ventilation strategies using enhanced filters and other technologies to mitigate risk; dedicated cabin space for isolation and quarantine, plus advance arrangements with private providers for shore-side quarantine, medical facilities and transportation; and shore excursions with strict adherence to the operator’s prescribed protocols required of all passengers and denial of re-boarding to those who don’t comply.

“We recognize the devastating impact that this pandemic, and the subsequent suspension of cruise operations, has had on economies throughout the world, including the nearly half a million members of the wider cruise community and small businesses in the Americas who depend on this vibrant industry for their livelihoods,” said Kelly Craighead, CLIA president and CEO. “Based on what we are seeing in Europe, and following months of collaboration with leading public health experts, scientists and governments, we are confident that these measures will provide a pathway for the return of limited sailings from the U.S. before the end of this year.”

Prior to the opening of trans-Pacific air arrivals, Spencer said the resumption of cruises in Hawaii, while important, is one piece of a bigger picture.

“The big picture is, we’ve got hotels in Waikiki that are literally boarded up,” he elaborated. “And thousands of people have been laid off and lost their jobs. And it’s common knowledge that restaurants and bars are one of the most vulnerable places in terms of your susceptibility to getting COVID-19. And that’s a huge part of hospitality, obviously.”

Despite the COVID outbreaks aboard cruise ships and the negative news coverage surrounding those shipboard clusters, Spencer thinks once the cruise line industry is given the go-ahead, there’ll be passengers ready to sail.

“The demand for travel is still strong; it’s just pent up now,” he said. “People have experienced the joys of travel. It’s a big part of their lives, and they’re not willing to let it go. I and a lot of other people think there’s going to be a strong rebound, and past experience has proven this. There was a quick rebound after 9/11, a quick rebound after the Iraq War, a quick rebound after the Great Recession.

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“It’s because people are curious and people want to experience the world. They need a change of scene. It’s important to their mental health. And it’s important to family togetherness, to creating memories, and to just feel like you’re living your life.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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