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(Bloomberg) – The world’s biggest cruise lines have roughly doubled the number of lobbyists they’re dispatching to congressional offices and several federal agencies this year. But as they try to resume sailing from U.S. ports, one of their most effective targets has been the White House.
A former adviser to the White House Coronavirus Task Force says she and other advisers fielded a stream of calls and emails from cruise line officials, including Carnival Corp.’s in-house lobbyist. Their message: Help lift a “no-sail” order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has banned passenger cruises from U.S. ports since March.
“Whenever the no-sail order started to come up, the cruise lines would always engage,” said Olivia Troye, who was involved in the task force’s discussions of cruise lines before she left government in August. “The phone calls would start. They called all over.”
Since her exit, Troye has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and she accused President Donald Trump of grossly mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic in an ad last month for the group Republican Voters Against Trump. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded by calling Troye a “now-disgruntled detailee” who was fired. Troye disputes that.
Her description of the cruise industry’s lobbying, which is backed up broadly by federal disclosures and by other people who observed it, reflects the degree of influence that cruise companies sought to exert since Covid-19 shuttered their U.S. operations.
Last month, the industry received encouraging news: Vice President Mike Pence overruled a CDC plan to extend the no-sail order until February, according to two people familiar with the matter. That decision was first reported by Axios.
Now the order is set to expire on Saturday, and the task force, which Pence chairs, is reviewing cruise companies’ plans for countering the virus before deciding whether to allow the industry to resume.
Pence’s office declined to comment for this story — including on when the task force might reach a decision. Representatives of three of the largest cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. — declined to comment on their specific lobbying activities.
The industry’s trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association, or Clia, also declined to discuss specifics, but its chairman, Adam Goldstein, said the group has “relationships with many senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, and others.”
“Talking to elected officials, at all levels of government around the world, is a big part of what we do,” he said.
CDC officials remain wary of seeing cruises resume. The agency’s point person for cruise ships, Martin Cetron, said, “It’s going to be very difficult” to make them truly safe from coronavirus. And last month, in an official order, the CDC mentioned recent Covid-19 outbreaks aboard other countries’ cruise ships — despite steps they took to control the virus — and said that cruise ships in general “continue to be an unsafe environment with close quarters where the disease spreads easily and is not readily detected.”
Both Trump and Pence have pledged to help the cruise industry, which wields outsize political influence in Florida, a key swing-state in next month’s presidential election. Cruise lines site major operations in Miami, and sustain multiple ports around the state, and Florida politicians are helping to maintain the pressure on federal decision-makers.
Last month, the Miami-Dade County Commission’s port committee called for cruises to be allowed to resume. “We’ve got to get to work,” Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio said during a public hearing. “Enough is enough.” A few days later, Florida senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both Republicans, proposed shifting Covid-related oversight of when cruising can resume from the CDC to a group of agencies led by the Department of Homeland Security, after consultation with cruise lines.
In Washington, the cruise industry has deployed as many as 61 lobbyists this year, up from 33 over the first three quarters of 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization that studies the role of money in politics. The industry has spent $3.2 million on lobbying through Sept. 30, the most since 2012.
The lobbying effort appears to be paying off, said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has sought stricter regulation of cruise ships. “Not surprisingly, the cruise industry is weaponizing its formidable political muscle to set sail again without common-sense health-care upgrades,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
Industry leaders say that they won’t resume cruises until they’re safe. Last month, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian announced detailed recommendations to improve safety, and the task force and CDC are reviewing them.
Earlier this month, Pence said the panel will work with cruise lines to assure that they resume sailing only after effective Covid-19 protections are in place. Pence and others also expect the industry to prevent any shipboard coronavirus issues from burdening public health resources, according to a senior Trump administration official.
As the number of shipboard Covid-19 infections began rising in February, major cruise lines continued to operate from U.S. ports with few changes to their onboard activities, as Bloomberg News has reported. Industry representatives have denied that cruise ships contributed to virus’s spread, and they said cruise lines have been unfairly singled out among tourism and entertainment businesses because of their high profiles. The industry voluntarily shut down operations just before the CDC order was imposed, and has since worked to come up with proposals to resume operations safely, said Clia’s Goldstein.
It wasn’t long after the no-sail order was issued, on March 14, that the lobbying contacts began, Troye said.
One caller to the task force was Tim Pataki, director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, who passed along the industry’s concerns about the order and its impact on business, she said. Since the end of January, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have lost more than $40 billion of market capitalization combined.
“Was there pressure on reducing the number of days for the no-sail order because of their stock, or whatever, or their investments? Yes,” said Troye, who also was a homeland security and counter terrorism adviser to Pence for two years.
Pataki and the White House communications office declined to comment.
Under federal law, the CDC can impose no-sail orders due to public health threats. But Pence and the task force view the CDC in an advisory role, along with other federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security, said a senior administration official who asked not to be named to discuss the task force’s approach.
For example, when the original no-sail order neared expiration in April, task force staff members reviewed and sought changes to its replacement, including toning down language that described cruise ships as vulnerable to Covid-19 outbreaks, two people familiar with the process said. Pence’s September decision to overrule CDC Director Robert Redfield on extending the no-sail order wasn’t the first time the task force weighed in on the order’s timeline; it intervened similarly last spring to shorten an extension, according to three people familiar with the matter.
At that time, Troye said, she was asked to help work out shorter extensions than the scientists had sought. First the order was extended to July, then to September. “So that was a big negotiation between all of us,” she said. Two people familiar with the discussions corroborated Troye’s account.
In September, a paid advisory group to both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian unveiled a 74-point plan to make ships safer from Covid-19, and submitted them to the CDC and task force for review. The recommendations include sailing initially with fewer passengers, eliminating food buffets and requiring masks and some testing for the virus onboard. The CDC, in the latest no-sail order, said “it is too early to assess” whether these proposals would protect cruise ships from the spread of Covid and reduce the “potential burden and need for public health response activities.” Carnival also is working with science and medical experts to come up with protocols to make ships safe.
On Oct. 9, Pence invited CEOs of the world’s five biggest cruise lines to a conference call and lauded their plans. “Together, the industry executives thanked the Trump Administration for its collaborative approach and support, and stressed that this process and proposal introduces accountability and standards that will ensure cruise ship passengers are in a safe and healthy environment,” a summary of the meeting by Pence’s office said.
The White House’s desire to allow U.S. cruises to resume clashes with warnings from the CDC’s Maritime Unit, a group of scientists and cruise-ship specialists who’ve been tasked since April with policing the no-sail order and assuring ships are safe from Covid.
Cetron created the unit after a career at CDC in which he fought the worst pandemics of the last three decades, including SARS, Zika, Ebola, H1N1 flu and Monkeypox.
In a recent interview, he likened cruise ships to a perfect storm for Covid because of their confined spaces that pack people together for days or weeks. “You can understand why this is a really unique and challenging setting for a global pandemic,” he said.
Cetron applauds what cruise lines are trying to do to make ships safer, but he’s got doubts. “Can we ever make it zero risk in the middle of a pandemic? Probably not. Can we make it a lot better than it is? Probably so,” he said.
Cetron and Redfield, the CDC’s director, declined to comment on internal deliberations about the no-sail order.
The CDC made it clear in the most recent update of the order that cruises are a long way from being safe from Covid. As of Sept. 28, 124 cruise ships, or 82% of the U.S. fleet, had suffered Covid outbreaks, killing at least 41 people and sickening 3,689, the order said. Recently, Covid outbreaks took place aboard ships that had been allowed to sail in other countries despite “implementing measures to control the disease,” it said. Those measures included eliminating buffets, limiting ships’ capacity to 50% and requiring social distancing, it said.
One lobbyist who asked the Coronavirus Task Force for help in persuading the CDC to lift the no-sail order was Carnival’s Tandy Bondi, Troye said.
For the first half of this year, Carnival’s lobbying disclosures said only that Bondi had met with congressional staffers. Then, in a filing for the third quarter that’s dated Oct. 14, Carnival disclosed that Bondi had lobbied the White House and the vice president’s office as well about “Covid’s impact on our company.” She and Carnival declined to comment further.
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