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World

Many Crews Remain Aboard Cruise Ships After Passengers Evacuated

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When passengers trapped onboard cruise ships were finally allowed to disembark, many told horror stories of their time at sea. But at least they got off the ships. Many of the crew weren't so lucky. Tens of thousands of crew members are stranded on at least 50 cruise ships floating in U.S. waters, says our next guest. The Guardian newspaper's Patrick Greenfield and Erin McCormick have been investigating why so many have not been able to make it back to land. Patrick joins us now from Costa Rica. Good morning.

PATRICK GREENFIELD: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are the crews still out there?

GREENFIELD: The key issue, really, is repatriation. The CDC do not want crew members to get on commercial flights. So it's very expensive for cruise companies to actually get all their staff home from all corners of the planet. A lot of cruise companies are choosing to keep their ships at sea with tens of thousands of staff. Many are sick. Many are dying. And the situation is only getting worse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the living conditions like onboard? Can you describe them?

GREENFIELD: It depends where you are. A lot of crew are stuck in a cabin. And they have been there on their own for a very long period of time - from a month to six weeks. They've not being allowed to leave since the passengers left and - or they get the meals every day. A lot of them are not allowed to walk around. There's no natural light, no natural air - stuck right at the bottom of the ship. They've lost their job. And they're very scared about the future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are they still getting paid?

GREENFIELD: A lot are not. Large cruise ships only need a few dozen crew members to actually operate when there are no passengers onboard. What we've seen now in lots of ships - they've received the letter come under the door saying, unfortunately, your contract's been terminated. We're not going to charge you for the room. We're not going to charge you for the food. Unfortunately, you can't leave. But once this all blows over in a couple of months, we'll rehire you. It's not realistic to expect that the cruise industry is going to be fine in a couple of weeks, and they're going to get their jobs back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The CDC is very concerned about having people who are ill come into the United States, as are state governors. We saw that in Florida. So what is happening to crew members if they do get sick?

GREENFIELD: Again, it depends. Like the rest of us having to stay at home, it's the same basic advice. Stay in your cabin. Wait for things to pass. And, hopefully, you'll get better. Many are young and not as at risk. But as we've seen, not everybody's making it with this disease. I mean, some are dying on the ship. We've seen dozens of evacuations to the mainland. That seems to be OK for some ports. But there's a mounting number of people that are dying, including ship doctors, kitchen staff, people who are entertainers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are cruise lines saying about this?

GREENFIELD: When Erin and I first started reporting on this, companies were very communicative. There were paying customers onboard. They were giving us regular updates about how many people were sick, which nationalities needed to get home and what they were doing about it. That has definitely changed recently. So now we have many companies with ships all over the world that are in international waters. They're often kind of just off the coast. And they don't really have to answer to anybody in the same way. And it's very hard for us to get information out of them. The main reason for that is that nobody is really legally responsible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what next for these people? Does there look like there might be a resolution in sight?

GREENFIELD: I'm hopeful that the CDC and these companies can come to an agreement quickly and get people offboard. This is a terrible place for them to be. But it's a question of waiting. Tens of thousands of people have been in their cabins for over a month now. People are getting sicker. More people are dying. And the longer that continues, the worse the situation will get. I think people on land need to realize that this is the worst place to be right now. And we must get people off ships and back into isolation in a safer place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Patrick Greenfield, an environment reporter for The Guardian. Thank you very much.

GREENFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.