MIAMI -- A crew member on the Costa Luminosa knew something was wrong when an ambulance arrived on the pier in Puerto Rico March 8 and left with two passengers. Elderly passengers are routinely evacuated at port stops when they become ill. But in the middle of a global pandemic, this incident felt different.
That same day, the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned all Americans against cruising, citing the increased risk of COVID-19 infection on cruise ships.
Over the following 11 days, the situation on board worsened. Three sick passengers were offloaded in the Canaries; dozens were reported sick when the ship docked in Marseille, France, on Thursday.
For crew still working as the ship crossed the Atlantic, the situation became ever more dangerous as hundreds of crew members continued to clean the ship and serve passengers. It wasn't until seven days after that Puerto Rico visit -- and four days before the ship arrived in France -- that Costa Cruises isolated passengers and provided crew members with masks that they had been asking for, according to passengers and crew. Costa is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.
The ship is now docked in Savona, Italy. To date, nearly 40 people on the ship have tested positive for COVID-19, and two have died, including one of the people offloaded in Puerto Rico more than two weeks ago. Hundreds of crew members remain on board, and at least nine of them have tested positive, a spokesperson for the company confirmed. Those nine were hospitalized on Tuesday, according to Italian media.
As the number of people infected on cruise ships continues to climb each day, cruise companies are still downplaying the risk of COVID-19 transmission at sea.
"Cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus," said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald in an interview with Axios that aired on HBO on Sunday. "We have hundreds of cruise ships out there. Very few had cases on them. ... A cruise ship is not a riskier environment."
The CDC has released evidence to the contrary. A report from the agency published Monday found that approximately 200 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. across 15 states were confirmed to be returned cruise travelers from Feb. 3-March 13, accounting for approximately 17% of total reported U.S. cases at that time. More than 25 cruise ship voyages have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 10 deaths have been linked to cruise ship travel.
Again, the agency warned Monday: "All persons should defer all cruise travel worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic."
Despite the warning and a forced 30-day hiatus on U.S. cruising, thousands of people remain working on cruise ships during the pandemic. Unable to comply with "stay at home" orders, they worry cruise companies aren't doing enough to protect them from the virus on board.