What Went Wrong on Those Carnival Cruise Ships

The Diamond Princess cruise ship docked.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship is seen at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in the Port of Yokohama in Japan on Feb. 27. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

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Some of the earliest—and scariest—coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year occurred on cruise ships. There was the Diamond Princess, which in February had the largest number of COVID-19 infections outside of mainland China and was quarantined outside Japan for a month. And there was the Grand Princess, which was quarantined off San Francisco in March after the disease spread there. Those two are far from the only ones, but they’re significant because they’re both by the same company: Carnival Corporation. And in both cases, the company failed to act in a timely manner as the virus spread on board, infecting hundreds and even killing some passengers. The impact of the coronavirus was brutal enough that Carnival had to shut its cruise division down for now. But why did it come to this in the first place?

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Austin Carr, who reported on Carnival for Bloomberg Businessweek, about what the cruise bosses knew and when they knew it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: You focused a lot of your reporting on Carnival’s cruises in particular and what happened to the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess. Between the two, as you wrote, 850 people tested positive for the coronavirus. On both ships, you describe this kind of incubation period where people on the ship, including those in charge, seemed to realize something was going wrong, but it took a while for the systems to click into place. Can you tell that story a little bit?

Austin Carr: So let’s rewind the clock to early February. Put yourself in these passengers’ shoes. You’re aboard the Diamond Princess. You’re sailing around Asia. You’re stopping in Hong Kong and Taiwan. You’re sort of aware of the virus news, but you mostly think of it as a China-based issue. It hasn’t become a global event yet. You’re on this massive cruise ship that has many decks, freshwater pools, saunas, restaurants, and bars. This is a floating vacation. And on Feb. 1, in the evening, a Carnival vendor emails an alert saying that a former passenger who had disembarked in Hong Kong had been treated for COVID-19. Around the same time, Hong Kong health authorities issue a press release about the case, saying they’re looking into it.

How did the ship respond?

That’s the big mystery right now. Carnival says it initially did not see that alert from the vendor and completely missed it for whatever reason. Inexplicably, Carnival just wasn’t aware of the press release from the Hong Kong health officials. The company said that around the time that it was released, a Carnival employee just completely randomly had heard about the issue from a news site, scrambled all night, and the next day reached out to Carnival executives to make them aware of the situation. The chief medical officer, Dr. Grant Tarling, started reaching out to Hong Kong health officials to confirm that it was indeed a positive test case. So it’s not until Feb. 2, according to Carnival, when the company confirmed that this was a positive case for a former passenger.

And then the question is: What do you do if you’re Carnival? You have a ship full of thousands of passengers floating around Asia. On Feb. 3, the captain announces: Look, we’ve heard that there is a positive COVID-19 case from a former passenger. We’re going to head back to Japan as fast as possible and dock. We’re going to engage in health screenings and get test kits aboard because there’s a chance that this disease might have spread around the ship.

I just want to underline what you’re saying because it’s so shocking to me. The official narrative from Carnival is: We missed the initial warning, and we found out about it because an employee was looking at a news site. And then a couple days later, it tells the people on the ship.

From the time that initial alert was sent to Carnival about this COVID-19 case, to Feb. 2, passengers say they were continuing to eat and drink at bars and buffets. They were hanging out in saunas and attending shows with crowds of people.

One passenger I talked to described getting a temperature check from a Japanese health official in her cabin. After, she was completely free to go about the ship. She walked up to one of the decks and came across a group of about 30 people drinking and playing mahjong together, which was for her quite alarming. She immediately thought, That’s a really easy way to pass an infection around. Once they actually got the test back on Feb. 5 and realized there were positive test cases, that’s when they initiated a strict quarantine. Everyone goes back to their cabins. They have to shelter in place. That is a horrendous experience for a lot of these passengers, being stuck in these enclosed environments for weeks. And then some have to deal with getting off the ship and getting back to the U.S. A month goes by and suddenly the same issue pops up for Carnival aboard the Grand Princess.

It’s strange to me that passengers were getting on a cruise ship in the first place at the end of February.

The thing about these passengers is they spent a ton of money on these cruises. Oftentimes, passengers defer to the company. So they assumed, well, if Carnival is still running the ship, they can ride safely. I think that’s the assumption that led these passengers to take these cruises, even though it was quite risky at that time.

There’s this disconnect in your reporting where the people you spoke with at Carnival insisted that their ships were really safe and no different than any other kind of public setting. But then you spoke to people at the CDC who said that, no, this is a different situation.

That was one of the highly questionable claims that I heard from Carnival executives, including CEO Arnold Donald. There was a CDC report that said there is a high risk of infection aboard these ships. When I asked Donald about that, he essentially said the CDC conclusions are wrong. He said this has nothing to do with cruise ships and that COVID-19 spreads the same there as it does in an airport terminal, a subway station, a restaurant, a theater, a stadium. When I went back to the CDC about that, the head of the cruise ship task force said that was really misleading. These cruise ships are very much enclosed environments. I can leave a subway, I can leave a supermarket, but I’m stuck on a ship. And the cruise populations are also much older, sometimes with underlying conditions. There are also crew members who, in addition to being low-paid, sleep in communal quarters. They have bunk beds. They share bathrooms. They often eat together at mess halls. So she was saying that this is a unique enclosed environment that is more risky, despite what Carnival executives are telling the public right now.

The fact that the CDC has a cruise ship task force sort of implies that this is a unique, potentially more dangerous situation.

You have to realize how many different authorities and agencies are involved when it comes to disembarking passengers from a cruise ship. You not only have the CDC, but you have Border Patrol because it’s a customs issue. You have people coming in from international destinations. You have to make sure people’s passports are correct. You have local authorities who have to take these passengers safely off the boat and also get them back home or into quarantine. The military also dropped off supplies on these ships, like test kits or personnel. And Air Force bases quarantined passengers after they left the ship. They did quarantine on the ship, but then they had to go through another quarantine once they got off the ship just to double-check.

How did Carnival’s CEO respond to what the CDC is saying, which is, basically, shut this industry down?

Donald was very defensive. He repeated the perspective that cruise ships are not unique when it comes to the spread of disease and that this coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented global event. He kept saying that you should not judge Carnival for the way it acted, at least not differently than you might judge a municipality, or a city like New York, or Italy or China.

I was surprised when you asked Donald about health inspections on his ship because he seemed surprised by what they’d found. He’s the guy leading the company!

The CDC has amazing databases. We pulled the data: Since 2016, Carnival brands failed ship inspections about 3 percent of the time, whereas its closest rival, Royal Caribbean, failed them about 1 percent of the time.

While Carnival points the finger at public health officials, its leadership is also eyeing allies in the Trump administration for help. Carnival’s chairman has a relationship with President Donald Trump that goes back to The Celebrity Apprentice: Carnival was a sponsor, and even had an Apprentice-themed cruise at one point. But apparently Washington has little appetite for bailing out the cruise industry right now.

We talked to Sen. Richard Blumenthal about this issue, and he was very vehement that there was a strong bipartisan opposition to a cruise industry bailout. He said that these cruise companies for too long have flown under international flags: A lot of them are incorporated in the Bahamas or in Panama, skirting taxes. Blumenthal argued that these cruise industry players need to prove they’re going to follow American norms and laws before they are the beneficiaries of some taxpayer bailout.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.