If senators are going to hang around Washington, they really ought to do something about cruise ships.
OK, the economy first. But if they’ve got enough time to push along the nomination of a minimally experienced 37-year-old protégé of Mitch McConnell to be a judge in the second-most-powerful court in the land, they could give a little attention to what appear to be floating coronavirus traps.
The cruise ship industry is one of the big featured players in our pandemic saga. We’ve followed one beleaguered boat after another, floating around the sea trying to find a port willing to accept a bunch of infected passengers and crew members.
Should have been easy to predict. If you’re an infectious disease looking to spread, no place better to start than an industry where the basic business model involves squishing as many people as humanly possible into round-the-clock dancing, swimming, theater and buffet dinners, interspersed with downtime in itsy-bitsy staterooms.
The cruise lines are now floating deep, deep in the red, and they didn’t get help from the stimulus bill — Congress cruelly restricted its aid to American companies that don’t attempt to dodge American taxes by incorporating themselves in less, um, demanding countries — like Panama, Liberia and Bermuda.
Still, they have lots of friends in high places. Donald Trump had called them one of the “prime candidates” for a government bailout. (The biggest of the mega-cruise companies, Carnival is chaired by Trump pal Micky Arison, and was once a sponsor of an “Apprentice” reboot.) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin amended the thought, saying the administration didn’t want a bailout — just “providing certain things for certain industries.” Which, of course, is not the same thing at all.
It’s true that in our current state of crisis, politicians want to talk only about the biggest initiatives. And we would understand Washington wanting to put cruise ships on a back burner, no matter how coronavirus-connected their recent history is. But you’ll remember, this is the U.S. Senate that’s fiddling with judicial nominations for Mitch McConnell’s friends. And a president who’s jumped on the idea of a payroll tax cut. Undoubtedly under the theory that what this nation needs most of all right now is less revenue for Social Security.
Ever since the cruise industry started floating monster liners with thousands of passengers, environmentalists have moaned about the pollution problems. And the way their noise tends to disquiet the poor whales. But they’re also potential public health disasters. Many of the passengers are older. The crews are mainly underpaid, undertrained young people who sleep packed together in contagion breeding grounds. The management is so out to lunch that some ships were recently gathering crowds on packed decks for shoulder-to-shoulder salutes to the world’s health care workers.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a longtime crusader for cruise line reforms, found evidence that the Norwegian line’s staff was being encouraged to tell potential passengers that a cruise to the Caribbean is the healthiest activity imaginable, since the coronavirus could “only survive in cold temperatures.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pulled the proverbial plug in March, with a no-more-sailing order. But the lines are already talking about getting back in the game — Carnival has said it wants to start sailing again in August.
They’ve been around, in the most unwelcome forms possible. Carnival’s Diamond Princess, with 3,711 passengers and crewmates, was bobbing off Yokohama with 712 coronavirus cases. Australia was the deeply reluctant host of the Ruby Princess, a virus-wracked vessel that has been linked to at least 660 cases and 21 deaths.
In a perfect world, the ships would just carry fewer guests, making them easier to deal with in times of crisis. (Last year rescue teams had to airlift 479 of the 1,300 passengers on a ship that ran into very bad weather off the coast of Norway.) More pragmatic minds just want to make sure that the liners have enough medical staff members and equipment.
“The issue with the Titanic wasn’t that it was too big, but that it had too few lifeboats,” said Representative Sean Maloney of New York. He’s a member of the House committee that’s demanding Carnival Corporation, which has 109 cruise ships, hand over its records on coronavirus treatment.
Senator Blumenthal has been introducing a Cruise Passenger Protection Act for years. It would require that ships carrying enough people to fill a small city have an appropriately trained doctor, staff and medical equipment on board. But the bill has never gotten a vote. “The cruise line industry is enormously popular,” he said.
(The cruise lines claim they support 421,000 American jobs, many of them in Florida. Those of you who have followed current events like, say, presidential elections will have noticed that in the end, everything usually comes down to Florida.)
“It’s a great business,” Trump said during the period when he publicly thanked Carnival chairman Arison for offering to make the ships available as pandemic treatment centers. It was a nice gesture, although from what we’ve learned about the state of their layout and ventilation systems, the hospital tents in Central Park start looking better.
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