Cruise ships kept sailing as coronavirus spread. Travelers and health experts question why.

It was one of the first outbreaks of coronavirus to capture global attention: For weeks in February, the cruise ship Diamond Princess was moored off the shore of Japan with hundreds of infected people aboard.

a building covered in snow: Despite a Feb. 5 quarantine, 700 people aboard the Diamond Princess eventually tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The ship is seen in Yokohama, Japan, on Feb. 21.

Then in early March, nearly 2,000 passengers had to be quarantined on U.S. military bases after infected passengers were found on the Grand Princess, a sister ship operated by Carnival Corp.-owned Princess Cruises.

By the time major cruise lines halted new voyages last Friday, at least half a dozen other ships had sailed with at least one passenger later diagnosed with highly contagious virus.

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While cruise lines have seen only a small fraction of the pandemic, they have emerged as a particularly tricky battleground to fight the virus. Health experts said the industry’s initial resistance to take drastic action — coupled with a deference from government officials, who let the companies to come up with their own action plan — put more passengers at risk. 

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

The crisis has put the spotlight on an industry that critics say for years has skirted labor regulations, such a minimum wage, and federal income taxes by incorporating overseas. Yet when disasters strike, or when people get sick or fall overboard, federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard come to the rescue. 

The Trump administration is now pushing to spend billions to prop up the cruise industry and other hospitality and travel businesses that have been crushed by the pandemic.

“Through the years, a huge amount of federal staff resources have been diverted to dealing with cruise ship health outbreaks,” said Nicole Lurie, who served as a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. “Given all the demands on public health resources, it may be worth asking about the public investment we make in protecting cruise ship passengers by putting in place better strategies to prevent future outbreaks involving cruise ships.”

a large ship in a body of water: An initial CDC study published this week found that the virus quickly spread through food service workers aboard the Diamond Princess, particularly those cooking for other members of the crew.

Cruise line officials said operators are subject to robust inspection by U.S. and foreign regulators. And the industry defended its response to the pandemic, noting the singular nature of the crisis.

Bari Golin-Blaugrund, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, said “the agility and responsiveness of CLIA cruise line members has been on full display over the past two months.”

Within 24 hours of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global health emergency, cruise line operators rapidly adopted enhanced protocols that she said “were repeatedly elevated as circumstances evolved over time.”

That, along with extensive cleaning and sanitation, helped limit the number of coronavirus cases aboard cruise lines, she said.

Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer of Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise operator and the owner of the line that operates the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, said cruise lines in January began barring passengers who had been to China in the previous two weeks. They later added recent travelers to Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea and regions of Italy to the no-sail list.

“To my knowledge, this was the first such restriction like this ever established in the cruise industry,” he said. “In reality, the cruise industry acted collectively and independently well before other industries when it came to the initial outbreak of coronavirus in China in December 2019.”

But in the weeks following the outbreak on the Diamond Princess, major cruise lines missed several opportunities to mitigate the crisis, according to health experts and passengers aboard the vessels.

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