Carnival's CEO says the coronavirus can be contained on cruises because 'the ship is so large' amid criticism of the company's slow reaction to the pandemic

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald.JPG
  • Carnival's Diamond Princess cruise ship became a hotbed for infection in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, infecting more than 700 passengers and crew members on board. 
  • In an interview with "Axios on HBO," Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said his company wasn't to blame for the outbreak on the Diamond Princess.
  • He said "cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus" and claimed that the infections on the Diamond Princess occurred "when no one understood hardly anything."
  • Donald's remarks come after cruise ship and health experts criticized Carnival's slow response to address the infections on board the Diamond Princess and to halt global operations in the midst of the pandemic. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald deflected blame for the company's response to the outbreak Diamond Princess cruise ship, saying in an interview on "Axios on HBO" with journalist Dion Rabouin that a cruise ship is not a riskier environment for infection despite its shared swimming pools, compact spaces and quarters, and shared meals in large dining rooms.

"It's more like Central Park. There's lots of natural social distancing [because] the ship is so large. People are not always gathered and clumped together," Donald told Axios. 

Carnival has recently come under fire from both health officials and cruise industry experts for several major missteps in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On February 4, Carnival discovered 10 people onboard its Diamond Princess cruise ship had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. At its home port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Japan, after a nearly month-long ordeal of quarantine orders and disease response more than 700 passengers and crew members were infected in what has been called "a floating epidemiological disaster."

"I'd like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed," Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today. "People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry."

It took more than a month for the company to suspend operations

Despite having knowledge of the rapidly spreading virus and several COVID-19 cases onboard several ships, Carnival did not suspend its global operations until five days after the CDC first warned Americans that it "should not travel by cruise ship."

"Cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus. We have hundreds of cruise ships out there. Very few had cases on them," Donald said in an interview. "The one that had the most cases was very early on, when no one understood hardly anything."

 

Shared swimming pools, compact and enclosed spaces and quarters, frequently touched surfaces from handrails to slot machines, and meals shared with hundreds create an "increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment," according to a warning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning issued on March 8.

There have been at least eight cruise ships with confirmed coronavirus cases across the entire industry, including the Diamond Princess, Grand Princess,  A Sara, MSC Meraviglia, Costa Luminosa,  MS Braemar, Silver Shadow, and the Silver Explorer.

Carnival and other major cruise companies, halted all travel only after the State Department advised Americans not to travel on cruise ships and the CDC published a no-sail order on March 13. Roger Frizzell, Carnival's chief communications officer, told Business Insider that the company's brands "recently voluntarily paused any new sailings around the world as information evolved on COVID-19."

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In his Axios interview, Donald countered the CDC's assessment that cruise ships are a breeding ground for infection, claiming that "a cruise ship is not a riskier environment." The CEO claimed that the large cruise ships were less like a crowded theater or arena, but more like New York City's Central Park. 

"Today's cruise ships are extremely spacious, certainly more so than close-contact seating environments in communities at sporting events, schools, churches, etc, that were not shut down until just recently," Frizzell told Business Insider.

Donald acknowledged that while there is a lot of social interaction on board cruise ships, he argued that they are better suited to "control the spread" of infection with its medical isolation protocols than a public library, restaurant, or school. 

"If [a coronavirus case] manifests, there's a medical clinic on board. We isolate and, in effect, you control the spread," Donald told Axios.

Frizzell said Carnival regularly cleanses and sanitizes its ships and that the "cruise ship environment is viewed to be more sanitary than other environments such as movie theaters or concert halls."

Experts say the company was slow to react

Despite Donald's claims that the cruise company followed "every protocol in place," cruise industry expert Ross Klein told Business Insider that the company was not assertive enough in taking steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading on the Diamond Princess.

"[The ship's captain] had the ability to segregate crew members who may have been ill from those who weren't ill or to find ways of ensuring that crew members who potentially were ill were not eating at the same crew mess as the people who weren't ill," Klein said.

Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases investigation recently found that likely spread from passengers who started showing symptoms to workers who prepared foods. A spokesperson for Carnival defended its response to the coronavirus infections on the Diamond Princess, claiming it was "an unprecedented situation for the cruise industry and health authorities as well."

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Donald later chalked up its delayed response to the general lack of knowledge around the novel disease. 

"20/20 hindsight, could everyone have done something sooner? Perhaps," Donald told Axios. "But it was an evolving, learning situation."

Frizzell told Business Insider that the company has been working closely with health authorities and that the cruise industry will come out the other end of the coronavirus pandemic with "significant learnings" in place.

"This is a fluid situation, but we have been working closely with WHO, the CDC, and other health officials on the issue during the past few months and this is significant learnings for everyone that will benefit our brands, our industry and other industries, as well as the medical profession, in the days to come," he said.

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