As the cruise industry raced to its ships and passengers back home before countries shut down their borders, some crew members were left trapped on board.
Now, with commercial flights grounded, some are desperately wondering when they will ever get off the ships and be able to go home.
“Please help us get repatriated to our homelands," says Humberto Gomez, one of 29 Honduran crew members stranded aboard the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ship Grand Celebration, currently sitting off the port of Palm Beach.
The passengers all left after the ship got to port March 15, but more than 300 crew members remain.
After 32 days trapped aboard, some of the crew say they worry about the health conditions aboard the ship and just want to go back to their families. “The stress here on board has gotten very tense," said Gomez in a video sent to Univision.
After cruise companies canceled all new cruises until mid-June, they were told not to disembark any crew members, on the orders of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal agency leading the fight against covid-19.
Dozens of cruise ships now rotating through the ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, to pick up supplies, form a line several miles off the coast while the industry waits for the pandemic to pass.
While more than 800 cases of covid-19 cases occurred during outbreaks on cruise ships, the CDC says transmission occurred across multiple voyages from ship to ship by crew members; both crew members and passengers were affected. “10 deaths associated with cruise ships have been reported to date,” it said.
Some crew members say they want to be with the families, and are being held in violation of the government’s own warnings to the public about the health threat of confined spaces on cruise ships.
Some say they have seen their contracts expire as they remain on ship with no pay.
“ The cruise line have pretty much violated our rights as workers and human beings," said Allan Valle, another Honduran crew member aboard the Grand Celebration, who said he was fired after he declined a 30% pay cut. “We are here practically without our consent,” added Valle, who also spoke to Univision via a video message.
Gomez and Valle said they spoke to the Honduran consulate in Miami and were told that a special repatriation flight had been organized with Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale to Honduras on Saturday, but Bahamas Paradise had declined to help them get on the flight.
Bahamas Paradise told Univision that it was “trying its best” to find a way to get its remaining crew members home, but that it has become very challenging after several countries, like Honduras, closed their airports to commercial flights.
The Honduran consulate in Miami said it had helped negotiate Saturday’s repatriation flight and did not understand why Bahamas Paradise had turned down the opportunity. Tickets were being offered at $211 a seat and quickly sold out.
In a statement, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said it has repatriated more than 100 crew members in compliance with the CDC’s guidelines. All 319 remaining crew members "are healthy, practicing social distancing, receiving daily temperature checks, and there is a doctor available to them onboard, at all times," it said.
In addition, it said crew members with being provided with "ample food, temporary use of passenger spaces, and daily activities to keep crew engaged until they can return home to their families."
In a phone call from the ship, captain Geir Lilleeng, told Univision “ everyone is in good spirits, taking the circumstances into play here.”
He added that while he would like to see all non-essential maintenance crew allowed to go home “there is no way for us to do that at this moment.” He added: “their country is not accepting them and there are no commercial flights.”
Prem Kainikkara, Senior Hotel Director at Bahamas Paradise said the cruise line was ready to reimburse the crew for the cost of the flights home, but had so far been unable to make arrangements for them. “We are mot than happy to facilitate that,” he said.
The Honduran Consul General Ricardo Estrada said his government had made an exception to its flight ban to allow repatriation flights.
“Our fear is that our country may take the decision in the next few days to completely close the borders, with no exceptions like this," he told Univision. “Because this opening to allow the return of sailors or people who were here as tourists or for medical reasons, or family living abroad, when the emergency was declared … was made provisionally to allow them to get home," he added.
Other cruise lines have said that getting a diverse, international crew home is indeed difficult. Crew on the Grand Celebaration are from a host of countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia, as well as Honduras.
Bahamas Paradise is a relatively small cruise line with only the one ship, Grand Celebration, with a capacity for 1,900 passengers, operating two-day cruises to the Bahamas from Palm Beach.
Some cruise lines companies told Univision that they are fully covering the expenses of repatriating crew while they wait out the pandemic. including chartering planes, and even using company ships to transport them.
“The health and safety of our crews remaining on board during this pause in our operations has been a top priority and our ships have remained fully stocked and provisioned for their care,” said Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines, which has six ships either docked or anchored off the port of Miami.
“We continue to work get our team members home, utilizing commercial flights, charter operations and now have committed at least eight ships that will be transporting crew home to Asia, Europe and Latin America,” he added.