KEY WEST, Fla. — As governments around the world have grappled with how to rescue cruise ship passengers stuck on board luxury vessels hit with the coronavirus, another group has remained largely forgotten: the marooned crews.
In the United States alone, nearly 80,000 cruise ship crew members are stranded on some 100 ships in ports or at sea off the coasts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them are in quarantine after the departures of sick guests, a small percentage are working, and many more are in limbo because nations around the world, including India and several in Latin America, have closed their borders even to their own citizens.
“You live in constant fear of dying,” said Alexandra Nedeltcheva, 54, who has been a waitress for Celebrity Cruises for 11 years. “For the first time, I thought, ‘I better jump off the deck.’”
Nedeltcheva spent several weeks on the Celebrity Apex, a new ship that was docked in a French shipyard preparing for its spring 2020 launch. She was one of hundreds of crew members who wound up testing positive for the coronavirus and was isolated in her tiny cabin, sick, alone, away from her family and thousands of miles from her home in Bulgaria.
She sued Celebrity on Tuesday, making her the first plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of failing to protect crew members by not distributing masks and implementing social distancing measures. The company released her four days early from quarantine and sent her on a 20-hour bus and plane ride back to Bulgaria where she is self-isolating at an Airbnb she had to pay for herself, she said.
“Nobody cares about the little people, if they get sick, or don’t get sick,” she said.
Royal Caribbean, which owns Celebrity Cruises, declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss pending litigation.
Cruise companies suspended operations in mid-March. But when that decision was made, dozens of ships were still at sea. Many of them departed even after the high-profile outbreak of the virus on the Diamond Princess; at least 700 people fell ill and nine died during the ship’s voyage off the coast of Japan.
People aboard the remaining ships have continued to get sick. Several passengers have died at sea.
Turned away at a number of international ports, several of the ships have been evacuated at ports in Florida and California — but generally only the passengers.
Most ships returned to sea after offloading paying customers, and cruise companies are scrambling to find ways home for tens of thousands of their employees. The CDC, which issued a no-sail order for cruise companies in US waters last week, is not permitting any evacuated crew members or passengers to travel on commercial aircraft.
Some crew members on board said in interviews that they were not getting paid while they waited and that many feared that the virus was still onboard the ships.
“It’s not a safe environment,” said a kitchen worker onboard a Holland America ship, who asked that his name not be published because speaking to the media violated company policy. “Right now, we are all in fear.”
The CDC said it is requiring cruise companies still traveling with passengers or crew to present plans to prevent, mitigate and respond to the spread of COVID-19.
“The CDC director has reason to believe that cruise ship travel may continue to introduce, transmit or spread COVID-19,” Scott Pauley, a CDC spokesman, said. “We are monitoring these ships and working with the cruise companies to ensure that an industry solution exists to provide seriously ill crew members with medical assistance if needed.”
One ship off the coast of Palm Beach has 400 Filipinos onboard who have been there for four weeks, said Henry Boland Howard, the honorary consul for the Philippines for the state of Florida.
“There are a large number of cruise ships anchored off the coast of South Florida, stretching from Palm Beach down to Miami,” Howard said. “So far so good, but time is of the essence. They can’t stay there forever.”
Howard helped arrange flights for at least 2,500 Carnival Cruises crew members out of Miami on Ethiopian Airlines charters, he said. The repatriations involved having the crew members leave the ships on small tender boats and transfer directly by bus to an airplane tarmac without ever entering a terminal, he said.
Brian Salerno, senior vice president of maritime policy for the Cruise Line Industry Association, said that crew members were well taken care of and had medical staff on board.
“As ships are laid up, many of the crew members will seek to go home, but there are some countries that are reluctant to have their own citizens return because of fear of international travel,” Salerno said in an interview last month. “If crew remain on the ships, the companies are certainly looking after them. If they don’t have a way to get home, I am sure many of them are going to remain on the ship.”
Michael Winkleman, Nedeltcheva’s lawyer, said the cruise companies took too long to react to the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s really been a nightmare for the crew in a lot of ways,” he said. “Even the folks testing positive, they are not getting medical care, they are not getting updates. They are halfway around the world from their families, alone, in quarantine. Morale is extremely low on the ships.”
Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival Cruises, said that his company was able to arrange some charters to get crew members home but that doing so “has become more difficult every day.” Thousands remained at sea, he said.
“These challenges have been unprecedented for our company,” Frizzell said. “Port closings and travel restrictions have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible in some cases.”