Mar 22, 2020 - Health

Carnival CEO defends coronavirus response

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald insisted in an "Axios on HBO" interview that his company did the right thing when it came to shutting down cruises earlier this month, despite criticism from some health experts who say it should have happened sooner.

Why it matters: Carnival has generated controversy for continuing to sail cruise ships after a CDC recommendation that all Americans defer cruise travel. Its Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was carrying hundreds of infected passengers, was held at sea for weeks before finally being able to dock in early March.

In the "Axios on HBO" interview, Donald said that being on a cruise ship was "a less risky environment" for passengers than being on land would have been:

  • "A cruise ship is not a more risky environment than being shoreside."
  • "A cruise ship in many ways is a less risky environment for a [virus to] spread than being shoreside."
  • "There are many protocols in place already on a cruise ship to detect, identify and isolate" infected people.
  • Donald added that a cruise ship is not like a theater or an arena: "It's more like Central Park. There's lots of natural social distancing [because] the ship is so large. People are not always gathered and clumped together."

The big picture: That assessment runs counter to the CDC's warning on March 8 — five days before Carnival halted cruises — that Americans "should not travel by cruise ship" because there was an "increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment."

  • Carnival did institute stricter boarding requirements in addition to its detection and isolation policies following the order and halted all travel after the State Department urged Americans not to take cruises and the CDC published a no-sail order on March 13.

“The cruise ship response was definitely lagging behind expert opinion on how big the risks are,” University of Chicago epidemiologist Katelyn Gostic told the Washington Post. “It was sluggish decision-making, and they should have responded earlier.”

  • Critics have long assailed the cruise industry for skirting labor and safety regulations and federal income taxes. Carnival, itself, recently pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $20 million fine for violating a probation agreement stemming from a 2016 conviction for dumping waste into the ocean — and covering it up — for eight years.

What's next: There is not yet any official word from Carnival on what comes next for workers or from the government on possible coronavirus bailout proposals for the travel industry, cruises or Carnival in particular.

State of play: "One reason we are interested in sailing again as soon as is practical is because we touched so many small business owners around the world and here in the United States," Donald said in the interview.

  • "It's really important that those tens of thousands of people who are dependent on our industry, travel agents, small shop owners, taxi drivers, etc., all have an opportunity to make a living."
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