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(11:10 a.m. EDT) -- Cruise line executives joined forces at a Miami public meeting this week to tell lawmakers the industry was ready to resume a return to service, based on appropriate and science-based health and safety protocols.
"Enough is enough," Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said in passionate remarks before the Miami-Dade County Tourism and Ports Committee meeting September 10. "The cruise industry is close to devastation. … We've got to get back to work."
During the meeting, cruise line executives including Arnold Donald of Carnival Corporation; Rick Sasso of MSC Cruises; and Michael Bayley of Royal Caribbean International told lawmakers about the work the companies have been doing to develop stringent protocols to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks onboard.
The meeting also included a strong rebuke of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by some of Miami's elected officials, who criticized the public health body for unfairly singling out the cruise industry and stalling talks of service resumption while others in the hospitality industry, such as airlines and hotels and resorts, have continued operating.
The CDC has issued a "no sail" order on cruising from U.S. ports through October 1, although most cruise lines have voluntarily canceled cruises through October 31. As of Sunday, cruise lines will have been out of service for six months because of COVID-19.
Sasso hightlighted the successful four cruises completed by MSC Grandiosa in Italy. The company has led the charge with stringent safety requirements that include COVID-19 testing of everyone before they board; safe ship-sponsored shore excursions; masks and social distancing onboard; and limited capacity.
"Our efforts have been extensive and relentless," he said, noting that the "bubble" that the line has created onboard has made cruising one of the safest ways to travel in the current environment.
Donald likewise noted that Carnival Corp.'s Italian line, Costa Cruises, has successfully resumed sailing, with its German line, AIDA, set to follow in November.
"We have been working nonstop with governments, health authorities, medical and scientific experts, and stakeholders across the world to develop science-based COVID-19 protocols and to ensure that the cruise industry is prepared to manage the associated risks, without any undue burden on government resources," he said. "We want no one to experience a greater risk on a cruise ship than they would on shoreside activities."
Bayley pointed out the Healthy Sail panel that Royal Caribbean has convened with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which comprises dozens of public health experts and former officials. The panel is wrapping up its recommendations to present to the CDC when that public health body closes public comment on suggestions for cruise line resumption September 21.
The effect of the cruise industry shutdown reverberates far beyond South Florida and Miami, Bayley noted -- it stretches into the 40 Caribbean islands and countries that accept cruise ships in their ports.
"Miami really is the gateway to the Caribbean," he said. Bayley noted he has been co-chairing a task force with the prime minister of Barbados to create universal COVID-19 guidelines in port that all Caribbean countries could adopt to feel safe and successful.
Although the meeting was virtual, the emotion surrounding the cruise industry's pause was palpable -- not only from the cruise lines executives concerned with employee layoffs and bottom lines, but from small businesses who rely on the cruise industry for employment.
Arnold called the effect of the shutdown a "tsunami effect" on local businesses. To bring the message home, Carnival released a video outlining the plight of Jerry Kaye, owner of Lucite Creations, a Miami company that makes signs for the industry. Orders for his small business dried up after cruise ships stopped sailing in March.
"There are millions of jobs at stake with the cruise industry. Hopefully it will come back soon enough that the small guys like me can survive," Kaye said in the video, becoming visibly choked up. "If I had to leave (working), it would destroy me."
In public comments, Catelyn Gardner of the travel agent network Cruise Planners called for the cruise lines to be treated similarly to restaurants, bars and hotels, and outlined the strain that the shutdown had on the agents, all small businesspeople. "It's unfair to single out the cruise industry and hold us to a different standard," she said.
But it was Del Rio who brought personal feelings to the surface. He said that it was "unconscionable" that other forms of tourism, such as airlines and hotels, had been allowed to open in their limited capacity, while cruise lines had not.
"All we're asking for is the ability to demonstrate that we take this very, very seriously," he said, citing the amount of brain power and work behind the Healthy Sail initiative. "We've learned a lot on how to live alongside COVID. We are making great progress."
"We have been quiet for too long," Del Rio said. "It's time to raise our voices. It's time to let them know that we are confident in our protocols."
Miami Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who was running the meeting, periodically made jabs at the CDC, specifically citing the 14-week delay in communication between the agency and the cruise lines in the spring, after the companies rushed to get repatriation protocols into place.
With the lines ready to submit plans before the September 21 deadline, the CDC should expedite talks with the industry and give actionable feedback on the protocols so the industry can open up, at least on a limited basis, she said.
"They cannot wait another 14 weeks or so," she said, "They will need immediate reaction from the CDC. ... It is not fair that the CDC is not paying attention and communicating with the cruise industry."
The executives all reiterated their openness to work with the CDC to get cruising started again.
The successful European launch didn't come without close collaboration with governments and local health authorities, MSC's Sasso said. "We are ready to work with authorities in the U.S. directly," he said.
"We respect the CDC's role," Donald said. "We have a long history of working together collaboratively. We are committed to working with them."