Why cruise lines are fighting with passengers—and each other—over safety standards

July 16, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

When will it really be safe to cruise again? Until cruise operators can give a more definitive answer to their eager but vulnerable customers, they might as well be rearranging deck chairs on another famously doomed ocean liner.

Pandemic-battered cruise companies, bleeding cash and desperate to bring passengers back to their ships, this month have touted new efforts to hammer out post-coronavirus health and safety standards. “We will sail when we feel we will honor our commitment to operate in the best interest of public health,” Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald told analysts during a conference call last week.

In Germany, that could be as early as next month. Carnival is planning to bring passengers back aboard three of its German AIDA ships in August, and is hoping that it can resume operations in Italy next. But in the United States—the home to more than half of all cruising customers, the functional headquarters for all the major cruise companies, and a country where COVID-19 cases are spiking again—Carnival and its competitors will remain anchored until at least late September, and quite possibly longer.

The timing for resuming operations in the U.S. will “largely be determined not only by health authorities but also society’s comfort level and acceptance with social gathering,” Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell tells Fortune.

Now the industry’s efforts to reassure customers about the safety of cruising must overcome internal conflict, as companies diverge on how to establish safe practices, as well as mounting external scrutiny of its track record. Carnival alone, the world’s largest cruise company, is facing government investigations in multiple countries, as well as passenger lawsuits over how it handled the early days of COVID-19.

“Many people who are on these ships were loyal cruisers. They trusted these companies to protect them and to put their safety above corporate profits,” says Mark Chalos, a partner at law firm Lieff Cabraser, who represents about 100 passengers suing Carnival.

The lawsuits his firm has filed, including four class-action complaints, allege personal injuries and wrongful death after customers contracted COVID-19 aboard Carnival-owned ships, including the Grand Princess. Overall, the company is facing at least seven class-action lawsuits, as well as individual claims from more than 100 former passengers, according to a regulatory filing Friday. (Some of the individual lawsuits, claiming emotional damage inflicted by potential exposure to COVID-19, were dismissed by a California federal judge this week.)

Carnival believes the class-action claims “are without merit” and is “taking proper actions” to defend against them and the individual lawsuits, the company said in its filing. Frizzell adds that “the health, safety, and well-being of our guests and crew” is a top priority for Carnival.

Confirmed vs. suspected cases

At least 95 people have died from cases of COVID-19 linked to cruise ships, according to analysis by the Miami Herald. And almost 3,000 people developed confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 aboard cruise ships in U.S. waters between March 1 and June 23, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data released to the New York Times last month.

Carnival was the most deeply affected by these outbreaks, with people falling ill on 47 of its ships, according to the CDC data cited by the Times. The company has been under scrutiny since the early days of the pandemic, when several of its ships, including the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, played host to sweeping outbreaks.

Both Carnival and the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry trade group, dispute the methodology of the CDC’s count, which includes “suspected” coronavirus cases. They argue that only confirmed cases from positive tests should be counted. Frizzell says that “only a small percentage” of Carnival’s then-105 ships had customers test positive for COVID-19, while CLIA spokeswoman Bari Golin-Blaugrund says that passengers on 48 ships were confirmed positive by testing for COVID-19, out of almost 280 total cruise ships in operation during that period.

But accurate data about the early spread of COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Widespread testing was largely unavailable to Americans during the early days of the pandemic, and is still not at the level recommended by public health authorities.

The lawsuits also allege that Carnival failed to adequately screen and quarantine customers once it became aware that it had confirmed cases of COVID-19 aboard—even though its chief medical officer had previously coauthored a paper acknowledging that “close quarters and prolonged contact among travelers on ships…increase the risk of communicable disease transmission.”

Frizzell responds that Carnival “had a number of health safety protocols implemented on our ships, well before most other travel companies,” and remained in contact with the CDC to follow its guidance “to the letter” on board.

Yet the company is also facing federal, state, and international regulatory probes. The governments of Australia and New Zealand as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are all looking into Carnival’s handling of COVID-19 on its ships, and “the investigations could result in the imposition of civil and criminal penalties in the future,” the company said Friday.

Self-imposed vs. court-ordered

For Chalos and his clients, Carnival’s actions in the early days of COVID-19 fell woefully short of safeguarding its customers’ health and safety. These class-action lawsuits include a request for “injunctive relief,” a court order for Carnival to take more proactive, specific measures about handling future outbreaks on its ships.

“At the end of the day, I don’t believe the cruise industry will go away,” Chalos says. “But if it ever expects to gain the confidence of its passengers again, cruise companies will need to change the way they do business.”

The industry already appears to be making some of those changes on its own. Last week, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced that they had enlisted several senior public health experts to advise them on new “healthy sail” standards. Their joint effort, endorsed by CLIA, promised to make its findings and future guidelines “open-source” to all cruise companies—but it did not include Carnival, which is organizing a separate set of public health experts to speak at an event next week.

“I don’t think health and safety should be a matter of competition…I’m not a supporter of that. It doesn’t make sense to me,” says James Ferrara, cofounder and president of travel agent network InteleTravel, which gets about 40% of its business from the cruise industry.

Ferrera is also on CLIA’s advisory board, and argues that health and safety work “should be done at the CLIA level, and not individually by brands or groups of brands.”

Despite these seemingly dueling efforts, none of the cruise companies or their trade group will acknowledge the potential conflict created by designating two separate groups to create safety standards. “Our cruise line members agree that health and safety should not be, and is not, a matter of competition,” CLIA’s Golin-Blaugrund says by email.

“We don’t view it at all as competition on safety and health,” a Royal Caribbean spokesman told Fortune, in a joint call with his Norwegian counterpart. “This was a case where we thought we could go farther and faster by teaming up, while still managing to keep everyone else in the industry included.”

“No one wants to compete on health or safety…and we’re all working collectively,” Carnival CEO Donald said last week, adding that the company is “working diligently to determine what enhancements to our existing protocols will best serve the interests of public health.”