Fear in Caribbean cruise ports about COVID-19 are of real concern. Yet Caribbean governments have found a strong and supportive ally in the cruise lines.
2021, August 1: The first cruise ship to dock in Jamaica in more than a year of a global pandemic arrived in Ocho Rios on the morning of August 16, 2021.
Arguably the most beautiful cruise ship destination in a sea of exquisite ports, Ocho Rios was the backdrop fate had selected for the restart of business that provided bread and butter for hundreds of Jamaicans in and around the little north coast town they call “Ochie”.
Cruise tourism is one of the pillars of Jamaica’s tourist industry. High hopes and expectations for the soonest-possible return of mega cruise ships to Jamaica’s gorgeous ports remained on the surface for the 17 months that the COVID-19 pandemic brought that business to a halt.
Early cloud dispersion from a tropical storm in the vicinity of Jamaica did dim the morning light, but barely swayed the delight and relief experienced by those that serve and/or depend on cruise tourism. The Carnival ship arrived under cloudy skies for its scheduled mid-morning docking in Ochie. But it was not the gathering clouds from (then) Tropical Storm Grace that muted the event. Rather, it was the lingering concerns in a local community in which much of the population was still not vaccinated.
At that time, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported “Jamaica has administered at least 391,076 doses of COVID vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs two doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 6.6% of the country’s population.”
Concerns, fears, assurances
One local daily reported that there was fear that the return of cruise ships “…once considered the incubator of the disease…” could cause an increase in infection rates if not carefully managed. There may have been some lingering concerns ashore even as the ship came alongside. But the ship and its passengers and crew (about half the 3,000 capacity) were greeted with glee and an optimism that survived a year and a half of uncertainty and anxiety. And masked local officials, led by the government minister responsible for the Tourism portfolio, were on hand to participate in the ceremonial exchange of plaque and pleasantries.
“I am very pleased to announce that Jamaica has finally seen the return of cruise today with the arrival of Carnival Sunrise. We welcome this resumption as we know that thousands of Jamaicans depend on the cruise shipping industry,” said the Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett. He emphasised that the restart of cruise business had to be planned within the strict guidelines of international safety guidelines and protocols.
A week before, in announcing the arrival of the ships, Minister Bartlett moved to allay public concerns and fears.
“I want to assure the public that this (cruise ship) call is being managed in accordance with strict health and safety COVID-19 protocols which are guided by global standards and best practices to ensure the safety and protection of our citizens as well as visitors. Additionally, the vessel is being managed in alignment with the Conditional Sailing Order for Simulated and Restricted Voyages promulgated by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The arrival of the “Carnival Sunshine” (sic) on Monday marks a significant milestone in recovery efforts and signalled the resumption of cruise operations suspended because of the pandemic.
“Under the strict measures governing the restart of cruise shipping approximately 95% of the crew and passengers are fully vaccinated and all passengers are required to provide evidence of negative results from a COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of sailing.”
Fear in Caribbean cruise destination ports about COVID-19 infection are of real concern for regional governments. COVID-19 coronavirus is passed human to human. And the fear of importing a public health catastrophe via the cruise industry is bolstered by an apparent inability of some countries to maintain the restrictions required to halt the spread of this coronavirus and its dangerous variant, COVID-21…popularly called the Delta variant. Yet, in this struggle, Caribbean governments have found a strong and supportive ally in the cruise lines. None wanted a repeat of the 2020 nightmare of ships at sea full of sick people and nowhere to disembark; and awakening to a no-sail order from the USA’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC), issued along with a set of restrictions to be satisfied before cruise ships could sail again.
And so, Norwegian Cruise Line implemented a Sail Safe programme, inviting guests to “cruise with freedom” and “experience everything on board our 100% fully vaccinated ships”.
Norwegian’s five-point programme, published on its website and elsewhere, essentially mandated full vaccination of all staff and passengers.
1. Norwegian’s “cruise with freedom” promise rested on the following:
Mandatory Vaccinations Against COVID-19 on Initial Voyages:
All guests and crew to be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to departure, in order to board the ship.
Guest vaccination requirements established for all sailings embarking through October 31, 2021.
Passengers on ships embarking or disembarking at US ports to be vaccinated with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or World Health Organization (WHO) authorized single brand vaccinations.
2. Universal testing & Pre-Embarkation Protocols:All guests required to take a COVID-19 antigen test, administered and paid for by the cruise line, prior to boarding and receive a negative result. Guests also responsible for complying with all local health and safety requirements which may include additional testing.
3. Socially Responsible Check-In:An enhanced, staggered embarkation process and new check-in system established to streamline check in for guests by allowing documents to be signed electronically.
4. Controlled Guest Capacity :(Initially) control of guest capacity onboard each ship to provide even more space per guest.
5. Hand Sanitation:All guests required to wash hands frequently. Hand sanitizer will be prominently placed and easily accessible throughout the ship.
It was a course of action that would have brought a great measure of relief to those operating Caribbean cruise destinations. However, mandatory vaccination was contrary to the thinking and pronouncements of the Governor of Florida, the state in which Norwegian homeports. On top of that, Governor DeSantis felt that the CDC had no basis in law to dictate regulatory action that could shut down an entire industry. The CDC, he said, had overstepped its authority by such imposing restrictions and particularly the criteria for a phased resumption contained in its conditional sailing order issued in October 2020 (following on the initial, March 2020, no-sail order. The state of Florida took its challenge (of CDC’s authority to impose restrictive guidelines) to court. Meanwhile Norwegian Cruise Line’s Holdings challenged the constitutionality of the Florida law that prevent cruise lines from mandating vaccinations as a prerequisite for boarding ships.
On the weekend of August 8, Norwegian announced that the Court case had gone in its favour and that it could require guests and crew to present official proof of vaccination prior to embarking ships for cruises leaving Florida ports. Although the news that the State planned to appeal the decision was immediate, it did appear likely that this verdict could influence similar decisions in other jurisdictions, especially where documented cases of COVID-19 infection were again increasing and affecting mainly unvaccinated people.
Like many Caribbean port managers now struggling to keep this pandemic at bay, President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Frank Del Rio was delighted by the Court decision. His comments on a US network television news programme (ABC News) were indicative and would have been like music to Caribbean ears.
“We are very pleased with the Judge’s order. We think it’s the right thing to do, given there is a pandemic going on… (with) the challenges the cruise industry has had with the pandemic…we want to do everything possible to keep Covid off our ships. And the science tells us that the best way to do that is to have a vaccinated population.
“So back in the Spring, long before it was popular to do so, we (Norwegian) said we would not sail unless there was a 100% vaccination, which means all crew all guests and, on top of that, primarily because of the Delta variants and its effects on society right now, we are also testing everyone on board.
“So, to learn that the State, so quickly after the Judge’s decision, plans to appeal the case is disappointing. You’d think that they would apply whatever resources they have to educate the public and do everything possible to vaccinate more people. Instead, they want to fight us in court. Here is a State that depends on tourism but, apparently, it’s not in their best interest to keep not only our residents safe but our visitors safe. So, it is very, very disappointing.”
The interviewer asked: if Florida was to win the appeal would you (Norwegian) suspend operations in the State? Because of a technical glitch which apparently affected the audio, he said could not hear the question even after it was repeated. And so, no answer was forthcoming.
Must be protected
Passengers were allowed to disembark the Carnival Cruise ship in Jamaica on the morning of August 16. And, despite local fears and concerns, many visitors were taken inland on scenic tours. Others shopped and walked the town. It was a smooth, uneventful port call by all reports.
Those ashore who received, accommodated and guided the hundreds of passengers that alighted for a long-to-be-remembered pleasure trip must be protected.
Protection begins with strict safety protocols based on science and activated before passengers and crew show up to board ship.