White House kills CDC plan to extend ban on cruise ships

Sheila Kaplan, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 01 2020 02:18 PM

Cruise ships docked at the Port of Miami on Saturday, April 4, 2020. Angel Valentin, The New York Times/File

UNITED STATES - The White House has blocked a new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep cruise ships docked until mid-February, a step that would have displeased the politically powerful tourism industry in the crucial swing state of Florida.

The current “no sail” policy, which was originally put in place in April and later extended, was set to expire Wednesday. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC, had recommended the extension, worried that cruise ships could become viral hot spots, as they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

But at a meeting of the coronavirus task force Tuesday, Redfield’s plan was overruled, according to a senior federal health official who was not authorized to comment and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The administration will instead allow the ships to sail after Oct. 31, the date the industry had already agreed to in its own, voluntary plan, the agency announced late Wednesday night. The rejection of the CDC’s original plan was first reported by Axios.

Redfield, who has been scolded by President Donald Trump for promoting mask wearing and cautioning that vaccines won’t be widely available until next year, worried before the Tuesday decision that he might get fired, and had considered resigning if he were required to oversee a policy that compromised public health, according to a senior administration official as well as a person close to Redfield.

Brian Morgenstern, the White House deputy press secretary, said that the administration’s cruise ship plans were not politically motivated. “The president, the vice president and the task force follow the science and data to implement policies that protect the public health and also facilitate the safe reopening of our country,” he said.

The CDC under Redfield’s leadership has received harsh criticism from scientists for its handling of the pandemic, beginning with its botched rollout of testing kits last spring.

Political appointees in the health department pushed through CDC guidelines — despite objections from the agency’s own scientists — saying that people without symptoms did not need to be tested for the coronavirus. The agency then reversed course to recommend testing. It also recently issued new guidance on airborne transmission of the virus, only to take it down a few days later, saying it had been “posted in error.”

Redfield, squeezed between the White House’s desire to reopen the economy and scientists’ concerns about further spread of the virus, warned that allowing cruise ships to sail without proper precautions could lead to a public health disaster.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, owned by Carnival Corp., became one of the first examples of a coronavirus superspreading event this winter, when more than 700 of its 3,711 passengers and crew tested positive, and 14 died.

Between March 1 and July 10, there were 2,973 cruise-related cases of COVID-19 or COVID-like illness, and 34 deaths, in waters subject to the CDC’s jurisdiction, according to the agency.

The cruise ship industry has considerable political influence in Florida, a state Trump is fighting hard to win in the election. The Cruise Lines International Association said that the industry generates $53 billion annually in economic activity. The Florida Ports Council said that state’s cruise industry, the largest in the nation, has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus.

Republican politicians in Florida and cruise industry lobbyists have called for ending the no-sail order. “I urge the CDC not to extend or renew the ‘No Sail Order,’” Carlos A. Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, said in a statement Saturday.

On Sept. 16, US Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both R-Fla., proposed the Set Sail Safely Act, which would create a maritime task force to work on the logistical changes needed for the industry to resume operations safely.

“The Florida delegation is very supportive, and is trying to work with the administration and the CDC to see what efforts we can do to get the industry up and operating,” said Michael Rubin, vice president of governmental affairs for the Florida Ports Council. “It’s still the only industry that’s not allowed to operate at the moment.”

Trump had included the chairmen of 3 major cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian — on a White House task force formed in April to advise him on ways to reopen the country.

Although the cruise lines were hit badly by the coronavirus, they were ineligible for stimulus funds because they are incorporated overseas.

Nonetheless, Trump had repeatedly signaled his desire to help the cruise lines, and consulted with Carnival’s chairman, Micky Arison, on ways to use his company’s ships to help the country’s coronavirus response.

The cruise industry association, which says it represents 95 percent of oceangoing passenger ship capacity globally, is seeking a gradual resumption of sailing, starting with voyages containing crew members posing as passengers.

Its plan is based in large part on recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel, which was established by several of the major cruise lines and was led by Michael Leavitt, a former Utah governor and health secretary, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration. Some CDC representatives attended the panel’s meetings.

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a former acting commissioner of the FDA, who serves on the Healthy Sail group, said the panel has recommended that cruise passengers be tested before arriving at the ship, and then again before boarding.

“The one thing that you want to make sure of is that the virus doesn’t get on there in the first place,” Ostroff said.

Ostroff acknowledged that passengers who are infected by the virus en route to the ship wouldn’t necessarily test positive when they board but could still spread the virus to others. He also said that the group’s other recommendations, such as allowing fewer passengers, enforcing mask wearing and installing improved air filtration systems, aim to limit the spread of the virus on a ship should an infected passenger board.

Redfield is in a precarious position after weeks of public confrontations with the White House.

On Friday, he told a colleague that he was concerned that Dr. Scott W. Atlas, one of Trump’s top coronavirus advisers, was providing the president with misleading information, according to an NBC reporter who overheard Redfield’s telephone conversation on a commercial airplane.

The incident followed Trump’s rebuke of the director earlier this month, after Redfield testified at a Senate hearing that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year and that masks were perhaps even more important than a vaccine for curbing the spread of the virus.

Trump told reporters later that day that he believed the director had “made a mistake.” A vaccine would go “to the general public immediately,” the president claimed, and “under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said.”