Bloomberg Businessweek writers Austin Carr and Chris Palmeri bring us this week's Sunday Long Read, how Carnival Cruise Lines completely failed thousands of passengers and crew and left the ship Grand Princess out in the water without a safe port to come back to.
The news, when it reached the Grand Princess early on March 4, barely registered at first. In a letter slipped under passenger cabin doors, Grant Tarling, Carnival Corp.’s chief medical officer, announced that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had begun “investigating a small cluster” of Covid-19 cases in California that might have been linked to the ship. Thirteen days after leaving San Francisco for Hawaii, the vessel would be skipping a scheduled stop in Mexico on its return voyage and sailing back early to its Bay Area port.
That day, passengers noticed new hand sanitizer stations and crew members wearing gloves, but life on the Grand Princess, which advertises 1,301 cabins, 20 restaurants and lounges, about a dozen shops, and four freshwater swimming pools, otherwise went on as normal. Guests prepared for a ukulele concert, played bridge at shared tables, and took line-dancing classes. That night, Laurie Miller and her husband, John, attended True or Moo, a show featuring an emcee in a cow costume; the following morning, John joined about 200 other passengers in the ship’s Broadway-style theater for a lecture on Clint Eastwood movies. “I’m surprised they’re even letting this event happen,” he whispered to a nearby friend. “This is a big crowd.”
Around lunchtime on March 5, the ship’s captain, John Smith, announced a quarantine over the ship’s public address system. All 2,422 passengers needed to go to their cabins to shelter in place. Laurie Miller was in the Da Vinci dining room eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream. “Oh my God,” she remembers thinking. “This is real.” Then she ordered more ice cream.
Other passengers ambled to the ship’s stores and dining areas, too, to take advantage of the perks while they could. “Evvverrrybody went to the buffet,” recalls 61-year-old Debbi Loftus, who was traveling with her parents. “I just thought, Oh, crap, the ukulele concert is going to be canceled.” Crowds of elderly guests filed to their cabins through narrow hallways and down the stairs of the ship’s 17 decks. Sixty-nine-year-old Karen Dever tried an elevator only to find it packed with fellow passengers. “So much for social distancing!” she joked aloud.
As the lockdown progressed, the ship became a fixture on cable news and social media around the world, livestreamed by frustrated, scared passengers as if it were the Titanic of the TikTok age. Of the first 46 crew and passengers who were tested for the virus, 21 were positive. President Trump suggested they should be prevented from disembarking. At the time the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. was still low, and Trump implied that the vessel’s caseload would make it look like the U.S. was doing a poor job of handling the pandemic. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship,” he said.
But this wasn’t Carnival’s first outbreak, nor its last. In February, another of its ocean liners, the Diamond Princess, accounted for more confirmed Covid-19 infections than any nation except for China. Since then no cruise operator has been hit harder than Carnival. At least seven more of the company’s ships at sea have become virus hot spots, resulting in more than 1,500 positive infections and at least 39 fatalities. Carnival notes that “other cruise companies have been impacted.”
Carnival’s ships have become a floating testament to the viciousness of the new coronavirus and raised questions about corporate negligence and fleet safety. President and Chief Executive Officer Arnold Donald says his company’s response was reasonable under the circumstances. “This is a generational global event—it’s unprecedented,” he says. “Nothing’s perfect, OK? They will say, ‘Wow, these things Carnival did great. These things, 20/20 hindsight, they could’ve done better.’ ”
Donald says that if his company failed to prepare for the pandemic, it failed in the same way that many national and local governments failed, and should be judged accordingly. “Each ship is a mini-city,” he says, and Carnival’s response shouldn’t be condemned before “analyzing what New York did to deal with the crisis, what the vice president’s task force did, what the Italians, Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese did. We’re a small part of the real story. We’re being pulled along by it.”
I don't see how the cruise industry as a whole survives this, but Carnival is done, and deservedly so.
If the lockdowns don't end them, the lawsuits will.