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California

Cruise ship industry reels as Princess Cruises and Viking suspend voyages

Grand Princess cruise ship sails past Alcatraz Island as it prepares to dock in Oakland
The Grand Princess cruise ship sails past Alcatraz Island as it prepares to dock in Oakland to unload passengers amid the coronavirus crisis on Monday.
(Peter DaSilva / For The Times)

Faced with outbreaks of coronavirus on two of its ships and increasing government pressure, Princess Cruises announced Thursday that it will suspend all operations for its vacation voyages for 60 days.

The news comes as federal and California authorities undertake a massive operation to remove 2,400 passengers from the Grand Princess, a cruise ship stricken by the virus, and move them to quarantine sites largely on military bases. The vessel is currently docked at the commercial Port of Oakland in an effort that has been ongoing since Monday, with most passengers expected to be off by Thursday night.

Princess came under intense criticism for its handling of another severe coronavirus outbreak earlier this year on a different ship, the Diamond Princess. More than 700 of that ship’s 3,700 passengers and guests tested positive for coronavirus, and several died. The vessel was quarantined in a Japanese port on Feb. 4 after a passenger on a previous cruise tested positive for the virus.

Calling it a “proactive response to the unpredictable circumstances evolving from the global spread of COVID-19,” Princess Cruises said in a statement that its 18 cruise ships would cease sailing immediately. It hopes to resume operations in May.

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Shortly after the announcement, Viking Cruises followed suit, suspending its ocean and river cruises through April and revealing that guests on one of its ships were also quarantined over virus concerns.

“In recent days we have had an experience where a river cruise guest in Southeast Asia was exposed to COVID-19 while in transit on an international airline,” said Viking chairman Torstein Hagen in a statement. “While this guest is not exhibiting symptoms, she has been placed in quarantine. Separately, the remaining 28 guests will also be quarantined.”

Viking said it would offer a full refund or a credit of 125% of the amount paid to all affected guests. Princess said it will offer affected guests a credit of the amount paid and an unspecified bonus amount. For those passengers who do not want a credit, Princess offered an online form where they could request a refund.

Princess Cruises is a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., which also owns Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Cunard. Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival Corp., said Thursday that there are “no plans” for the other brands to cancel operations.

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In Cabo San Lucas, two cruise ships pulled into the harbor early Thursday, and passengers got off and milled into town as if little had changed. One of these ships was the Carnival Panorama, which left Long Beach a day late Sunday after a passenger on the previous cruise got sick.

Passengers Lynette and Greg Martin sat at a waterfront bar, both wearing balloon hats and enjoying a drink at lunchtime.

“We were just concerned our trip would be canceled. The crew has been wiping everything down. There is lots of Purell onboard,” said Greg Martin. “I’m sure there were cancellations, but all of the cabins around ours are full.“

“We figure it’s blown out of proportion,” added Lynette.

While not unexpected, Thursday’s announcement by Princess Cruises adds to the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus on various businesses, especially the travel industry. For the last few weeks, cruise ships have come under increasing scrutiny from regulators, partly because of the tight quarters on the ships and a clientele that is largely older and more vulnerable to communicable diseases.

The U.S. State Department on Sunday urged Americans to avoid cruise ships, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advised caution.

“U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship,” the State Department wrote in a statement on its website.

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Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence met with leaders of the cruise ship industry, later saying he had conveyed the need for better health and safety measures, and planning for more outbreaks.

“We made it very clear that we needed cruise lines to be safer,” Pence said at a media briefing.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also advised people, especially the elderly, to avoid cruises. He has also indicated that he was investigating what powers the state could invoke to prevent cruise ships from docking in California during the outbreak. Thursday, Newsom said that he hoped other cruise lines would voluntarily stop operations.

“We hope to hear other announcements similar throughout the day,” Newsom said.

Newsom also said that the operation to remove people from the Grand Princess, which has been under quarantine for nearly a week, would be extended to Sunday.

On Feb. 4, the Grand Princess was on a return voyage from Hawaii when passengers learned that a traveler on a previous cruise on the ship tested positive for coronavirus and died. That man was a resident of Placer County in Northern California.

Passengers were quarantined in their rooms for days off the coast of San Francisco as federal, state and local authorities hammered out a plan to bring them ashore. Monday, the ship docked at Oakland and passengers began to disembark.

The majority of passengers will be quarantined for 14 days at military facilities in California, Texas and Georgia. Foreign passengers will be repatriated; more than 200 Canadians who returned home on a charter flight Monday night.

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Newsom said 1,963 people had been removed from the boat as of Wednesday night, and 476 were scheduled to leave the ship Thursday, “concluding the most challenging part of this process.”

The governor said the ship would remain at the Oakland port through Sunday, though originally it had been slated to leave sooner. A number of foreign passengers remain onboard, including 1,075 crew members from countries including India, the Philippines and Japan. Newsom said officials were working for some to be repatriated, though he has previously said many crew members would remain on the ship for the quarantine. Princess Cruises said in a statement Thursday that quarantine plans for the crew were still being determined.

Flights are scheduled today to Myanmar, and military bases in Texas and Georgia, to transport quarantined passengers and crew, Newsom said.

As of Wednesday night, only eight passengers from the ship remained in the hospital, but Newsom said an unspecified number had tested positive in addition to the two passengers and 19 crew members previously disclosed. Newsom called the cases needing medical attention a “very manageable” number.

The numbers of positive test results could increase: Those passengers heading to quarantines won’t be tested until they reach their destinations, he said.

Newsom said the state was keeping track of the costs associated with the quarantine and could seek reimbursement.

“Trust me, we have a detailed ledger of costs associated with this,” Newsom said.

Chabria reported from Sacramento and Cole from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.


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