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Why we can’t trust cruise ships to re-open in August

by Verner Wilson III, senior oceans campaigner

Usually, this time of year major cruise ports across the country, like in Southern Alaska where I was born and raised, come back to life. Communities and small businesses are usually busy getting ready to serve hundreds of thousands of visitors arriving on cruises. Usually, millions of tourists from cruise ships around the world come to help the local economies of places like Sitka, Ketchikan, and our capital Juneau.

But 2020 is not a usual year. The coronavirus crisis has changed everything.

Unsurprisingly, coronavirus hit the cruise sector especially hard. Cramming thousands of people in tight spaces after they have traveled from around the world is not just dangerous to public health, it can be deadly. When asked recently about cruise ships and coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci said: “You couldn’t ask for a better incubator for infection.”

During this crisis, the cruise industry has made several unethical and harmful decisions that exacerbated the problem.

After coronavirus, we can never go back to the “norm” for the cruise industry.

Despite the global pandemic, Carnival Corporation kept their cruises going over a month after the World Health Organization declared the disease a global emergency. Some cruise lines even lied to their passengers and employees, downplaying the seriousness of the virus. One report revealed that an infected cruise passenger was brought to Jamaica, where he infected 40 local health care workers and their families.

Tragically, there are more stories like this. The CDC ultimately found that by March 13, 17% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases were linked to cruises. The first confirmed COVID-19 death of a passenger on a cruise stopping in the U.S. was March 4th. Despite this, the cruise industry embarked over 100 more cruise voyages around the world on or after that date. Ultimately, 17 of those cruises entered U.S. ports.

To date, over 65 people are known to have died on cruise ships and thousands were infected on them, including cruise staff who have not been allowed to leave the ships. And as recently as last week, over 72,000 cruise industry employees and 100 passengers were still on ships, stuck and wondering what will happen to them next.

The cruise industry, after losing billions of dollars due to a crisis they help spread, now has their hand out begging for a bailout. The cruise industry has already received help from the U.S. Federal Reserve, the oil-funded Saudi Arabian government, and private interests, who all scrambled to save the industry. Some members of Congress even considered including a bailout for cruises in the stimulus packages for coronavirus aid. Fortunately, many rejected this ridiculous notion.

The cruise industry’s poor behavior extends far beyond the current coronavirus crisis. After illegally dumping wastewater in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park in 2018 the Holland America Cruise line, owned by Carnival Corporation, was fined a measly $250 by the National Park Service. Indigenous groups like the Hoonah Nation still hold Glacier Bay National Park as a sacred area and have depended on the seafood and resources there for thousands of years.

This prompted Friends of the Earth and our partners to create a petition signed by 46,000 Americans demanding that the National Park Service (NPS) deny the reckless Carnival Corporation a permit to cruise in one of America’s most protected areas.

In other parts of Alaska, cruise ships are known to dump their wastewater in ports like Ketchikan, potentially damaging coastal waters and the seafood that people rely on for subsistence foods and livelihoods.

That’s why it’s important for our leaders and the cruise industry to consider our ideas for cleaner, more careful cruise operations. After coronavirus, we can never go back to the “norm” for the cruise industry. Stronger, more stringent policies and procedures must be put in place for the cruise industry to operate in a way that protects both public health and the environment.

Recently, Representatives Jackie Spier (D-CA) and Doris Matsui (D-CA) introduced the Cruise Reform and Uniform Industry Standards Evoke (CRUISE) Integrity Act, a good start to bring back trust and responsibility to the cruise industry. Among other provisions, it would require independent public and environmental health monitoring of cruises operating in our country from independent, certified, unconstrained professionals.

There are many other provisions needed to ensure safe cruising prior to the industry operating again. Friends of the Earth looks forward to having this debate in local, state, and federal forums where our decision-makers will ensure that those who are in favor of more public health and environmental protections will be heard.

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