In a new interview with Axios on HBO, Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald was asked if he thought his industry should have acted sooner to contain the new coronavirus and stop cruising.
In what was perhaps the closest thing to a concession in the 30-minute interview, Donald said maybe.
“So 20/20 hindsight, could everyone have done something sooner? Perhaps. But it was an evolving learning situation,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview provided to the Miami Herald.
In the rest of the interview, he downplayed the risk of catching the coronavirus on a cruise ship, asked for government funds to prop up the industry and defended his company’s decision to continue cruising — with deep discounts — after the State Department explicitly warned against it.
The full interview will air Sunday, March 22 at 6 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.
When Axios Markets Editor Dion Rabouin asked if his industry needed a bailout, a concept President Donald Trump has openly floated in multiple press conferences, Donald was quick to mention his company’s 150,000 employees, many of whom are facing layoffs as demand for cruises has cratered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re looking for support primarily for those people who are being touched. We don’t need a bailout in terms of giving us money. Getting a loan guarantee would be helpful,” he said.
A guarantee would use taxpayer funds to backstop the company’s loans, a form of federal assistance. And that could make things tricky for the cruising industry because, unlike other hospitality industries asking for government help, they’re largely tax-exempt. Critics say this should disqualify the industry from tapping into U.S. taxpayer dollars.
“The giant cruise companies incorporate overseas to dodge U.S. taxes, flag vessels overseas to avoid U.S. taxes and laws, and pollute without offset. Why should we bail them out?,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, tweeted this week.
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Carnival Corporation is the largest cruise company in the world with more than 100 ships across nine cruise lines. In 2019, the company reported a profit of $3 billion.
Later in the Axios interview, Rabouin touched on one of the main controversies surrounding the cruise industry and COVID-19 — the decision to continue cruising despite the spread of the virus onboard several ships, as well as direct warnings from the U.S. government for passengers to stop boarding cruise ships.
On March 8, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department told all Americans to defer cruise travel, they specifically cited cruise ships as having increased risk of COVID-19 infection. Carnival Corp. and the other companies ignored these warnings and continued operations for another five days, albeit with stricter boarding requirements and more sanitizer, until stopping on March 13. The next day, the CDC published a no-sail order that describes in detail why cruise ships are risky.
“Cruise ships markedly increase the risk and impact of the COVID-19 disease outbreak within the United States,” the CDC order read.
And on March 17, the CDC elevated the travel warning for cruise ships to Level 3, directing people who have cruised in the last two weeks to self-isolate for 14 days, again citing the increased risk.
Despite Donald’s admission that something could have been done sooner, he didn’t call the decision a mistake.
“Cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus,” he said. “A cruise ship is not a riskier environment. People perceive it that way, but the reality is it’s not.”
He said cruise ships offer a lot of “natural social distancing” and said that of the hundreds of cruise ships out there “very few” have cases of COVID-19.
So far, at least a dozen cruise ships have had passengers or crew test positive for the virus, including several Carnival Corp. ships like the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, the Ruby Princess, and the Costa Luminosa. Carnival rivals and South Florida neighbors Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., and MSC Cruises have not been immune — all have had cases of COVID-19 on at least one of their ships.
Many of those ships are offloading thousands of possibly exposed — in some cases directly exposed — passengers in ports around the world now without testing them, including in Port Miami. At least nine people who had COVID-19 on cruise ships have died since the outbreak began last year.
Donald has been at the helm of Carnival Corp. since 2013. He concluded the interview by noting that, despite warnings from the government and increasingly dire headlines about the spread of COVID-19, plenty of Americans are still ready to book a cruise vacation.
“I think cruises ultimately will be even better than what they were before,” he said. “And of course people love cruising. Even up until the day we paused, people wanted to cruise.”
Reporter Rob Wile contributed to this report.