At least 100,000 cruise ship staff remain stranded at sea more than two months after the coronavirus outbreak shut down the sailing industry – with many not being paid and some even tragically taking their own lives.
Following a number of COVID-19 outbreaks on board cruise liners stationed around the world, the cruise industry ceased operations on March 13.
While most passengers were repatriated by April, employees were encouraged to wait out what cruise companies presumed would be a 30-day hold on sailing, believing the crisis would quickly pass – much like the 2002 SARS pandemic, which killed less than 800 worldwide.
But now, more than eight weeks later, in excess of 100,000 crew remain stuck on ships still aimlessly cruising the seas while they await permission to return home.
Many of those stranded are not being paid because they’re no longer officially working and US labor laws do not apply to the companies and ships that are registered aboard.
And most troubling of all, an end to their enduring ordeal remains firmly out of sight. On April 9, the CDC banned all cruising on US waters through July, and now most crew members have no idea when governments will finally allow them to return to land.
At least 100,000 cruise ship staff remain stranded at sea more than two months after the coronavirus outbreak shut down the sailing industry – with many not being paid and some even taking their own lives (Pictured: Ruby Princess anchored in the Phillipines)
Eight weeks after the cruise industry ceased operations, in excess of 100,000 crew remain stuck on ships still aimlessly cruising the seas while they await permission to return home
During the prolonged isolation, the virus has continued to spread through the ships, with at least 578 crew contracting COVID-19 at sea and seven dying, the Miami Herald reported.
The dire situation aboard ships all over the world have left some so despondent that at least two crew members have leaped overboard in apparent suicides.
On May 10, a 39-year-old Ukrainian crew member aboard the Regal Princess died after jumping overboard while the ship was anchored off the coast on Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.
That incident followed a similar tragic occurrence on the Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas, where a male crew member jumped off the ship, which had been stationed near Greece, at the end of April. His body was never recovered.
‘Here I am in a prison,’ Gan Sungaralingum, 38, a crew member stuck on Carnival Corp.’s Sky Princess, told the Herald. ‘We don’t know where we will end up, no one will accept us.’
Similarly, Taylor Grimes, a jewelry store worker aboard a ship in Italy has been stuck in a port in the Mediterranean for eight weeks with his parents voicing frustration with the amount of time it’s taking to get him safely home.
‘No day is fun, but some days are better than others and then some days are just the absolute worst,’ Grimes told WFLA.
Grimes was working on the ship, which he did not identify, in mid-March when COVID-19 began to spread rapidly through its cabins. He contracted the virus shortly after one of his friends.
In order to return home, Grimes must receive two negative test results in a row. So far he’s been tested for the virus eight times.
‘His test results have been positive, positive, negative, positive, negative, positive,’ his mother Ann Grimes said, calling the ordeal ‘maddening’.
‘We have no confidence right now in the testing procedures,’ she added.
His father Tom said he’s more concerned about his son’s mental well-being than his physical condition.
‘I am worried about him, not so much physically because he hasn’t shown any signs of the virus, but mentally he’s on a never-ending roller coaster ride,’ Tom Grimes told the station.
Taylor Grimes (left), a jewellery store worker aboard a ship in Italy has been stuck in a port in the Mediterranean for eight weeks with his parents voicing frustration with the amount of time it’s taking to get him safely home
In order to return home, Grimes must receive two negative test results in a row. So far he’s been tested for the virus eight times
His father Tom said he’s more concerned about his son’s mental well-being than his physical condition (pictured: the cabin Grimes is confined to)
Ryan Driscoll, a 26-year-old singer on the Seabourn Odyssey, compared being stuck on the ship to ‘Groundhog day’.
‘Many of us have a lot of stress and anxiety right now, especially with not knowing what the future holds,’ Driscoll said. ‘We call it Groundhog Day here, the same thing every single day. So it’s mentally exhausting.
‘We haven’t been given any answers. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.’
Thousands of crew members have been sent home over the last two months, but the process is slow and expensive.
What is complicating repatriation in some cases, cruise companies say, is that quarantine and reentry requirements differ from country to country. In the US, the CDC requires private charter flights for people coming off of ships, a measure many cruise lines deem too pricey.
‘Our goal has been to repatriate our crew members as quickly as possible, but that has proven to be much more difficult in recent weeks because of port closures, country closures and global travel restrictions,’ Carnival Corp. spokesman Roger Frizzell told the Herald.
‘As a result, there have been numerous complications and challenges. For example, we have 7,500 Filipinos on our ships in Manila, currently waiting to be allowed to go ashore.’
Meanwhile, Disney Cruise Line said the ‘health and wellbeing’ of their crew remains an optimum priority, saying they have ‘a team working tirelessly to repatriate them’.
‘With constantly changing requirements around the world and numerous borders still closed, this has proven to be an extremely complex process,’ spokesperson Kim Prunty said.
During the prolonged isolation, the virus has continued to spread through the ships, with at least 578 crew contracting COVID-19 at sea and seven dying, the Herald reported
Satellite images show an armadas of vacant cruise ships huddled together off the coast on the Bahamas
Three groups of cruise ships, with 15 in total, are clustered together off Coco Cay and Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas
About a dozen cruise liners, such as the Ruby Princess, have been sitting off the coast of the Philippines (pictured on May 18)
MSC Cruises added that 95 percent of the crew still at sea live in countries where borders are still closed.
‘We are constantly in contact with the Governments in these countries at the highest level on behalf of our crew and in some discreet cases we were able to persuade them to allow our crew back,’ spokesperson Luca Biondolilo told the paper.
According to The Herald, 37 percent of Carnival Corp.’s crew has been repatriated, MSC has sent 76 percent, Disney Cruise Line 33 percent, and Royal Caribbean an estimated 23 percent.
The administrator of two Facebook pages for stranded crew members and their families told Fortune that she’s receiving suicidal messages.
‘Many of these people have been isolated in their small cabins for 21 hours a day, and they’re breaking down from the loneliness and stress,’ former Norwegian Cruise Line guest manager Krista Thomas told Fortune. ‘Many have been told to pack quickly to leave, and then their charter flights get canceled. Those highs and lows are taking their toll.’
Experts warn the repatriation delays could forever tarnish the cruising industry and its image.
‘The cruise companies have to show they are going to have the capability in an emergency situation to get people at scale off of the ship and back home’ Rockford Weitz, director of the Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told the paper.
‘They have to be able to convince their customers they can find solutions and work constructively with public health authorities. The time for excuses at this point in May … there’s no excuse for not finding the way home,’ he said.
Crew member of Australian-owned cruise Greg Mortimer dressed in personal protective gear waves to people ashore in Montevideo, Uraguay on May 12
Thousands of crew members have been sent home over the last two months, but the process is slow and expensive
What is complicating repatriation in some cases, cruise companies say, is that quarantine and reentry requirements differ from country to country. In the US, the CDC requires private charter flights for people coming off of ships, a measure many cruise lines deem too pricey
On Friday, dozens of employees staged a protest on the Majesty of the Seas, another Royal Caribbean ship, according to the Cruise Law News blog.
‘Do you sleep well, Mr Bayley?’ said their signs, referring to Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley.
Crew on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas staged a hunger strike the week before, but the company said that has been resolved.
Caio Saldanha, a 31-year-old Brazilian DJ who works for Celebrity, a cruise line operated by Royal Caribbean, has been transferred to several different ships — but is still stranded.
He has filed a complaint with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights over his ‘incarceration,’ saying his employer could have moved quicker to offload them.
Another Brazilian national, a 52-year-old musician who spoke to AFP on condition that his employer remain unnamed, said he fears he will not get home any time soon.
‘I’m scared, I don’t want to die,’ he said in a video message sent to AFP, with his face obscured and his voice altered.
‘They just left us behind.’