Seattle cruise industry’s comeback from COVID marred by outbreak

SEATTLE — Just days into what was supposed to be the Seattle cruise industry’s comeback from COVID-19, a cruise ship steamed into Elliott Bay carrying dozens of passengers with the illness.

The May 3 arrival of the stricken Carnival Spirit was an inauspicious inaugural for an industry that pumped nearly $1 billion into the state economy before COVID and whose return is seen as key to the revival of downtown Seattle.

Carnival Cruise Line declined to say how many of Spirit’s approximately 3,000 passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.

A Carnival spokesperson said in an email only that the vessel’s crew “managed a number of COVID cases” during the journey from Miami via the Panama Canal.

But some passengers on the 16-day voyage said there were more than 100 cases aboard and that the outbreak “overwhelmed” the crew, according to local media accounts.

“They didn’t have enough staff to handle the emergency that was happening, period,” passenger Darren Sieferston told KING 5. “They were overwhelmed and they didn’t have a backup course in how to handle about 200 people affected with COVID. We all suffered.”

Carnival officials didn’t comment on those reports.

“There were no serious health issues, and while some guests showed minor symptoms, most were asymptomatic,” spokesperson Matt Lupoli said in an email. The company provided “transportation and lodging support for guests who needed to quarantine per CDC guidelines.” Those passengers were reportedly staying in Seattle-area hotels.

According to the CDC, the Carnival Spirit outbreak meets the threshold for a CDC investigation, which means 0.3 percent or more of the ship’s 3,054 passengers and crew tested positive for COVID. The agency considered the vessel to be “highly vaccinated,” with 95 percent or more of travelers vaccinated against COVID-19.

Of the 92 cruise ships operating in U.S. waters, 76 have reported at least one COVID case among passengers or crew members, according to the CDC’s cruises dashboard. Carnival has 22 cruises operating; all but four have positive cases.

Carnival participates in a CDC program that requires the cruise line to have an agreement with the local health agency and port authority in the cities each ship visits. Carnival has an agreement with Public Health — Seattle & King County, spokesperson Kate Cole said in an email.

As part of the agreement, the cruise line must have plans in place with a local medical provider and quarantine facilities to avoid straining local medical and isolation or quarantine facilities.

The outbreak aboard the Spirit came a day after officials with Carnival and the Port of Seattle held a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the cruise season after two years of reduced sailings due to COVID.

Many Seattle-area businesses that depend on tourists, especially downtown hotels and restaurants and Pike Place Market vendors, are counting on a full cruise season to make up for lost revenue.

Thanks to an abbreviated cruise season and fewer sailings in 2021, the Seattle cruise industry had roughly 227,000 passengers, or one-fifth of the 2019 total, according to the Port of Seattle.

A day after arriving in Seattle, the Spirit departed again for Tracy Arm, Alaska, and by noon on May 4 was just west of Brooks Bay, British Columbia, according to The Spirit is scheduled to return to Seattle on Tuesday, May 10.