By Paul Giblin
When the coronavirus pandemic washed over the globe, U.S. consular staff members across Australia located and tracked thousands of Americans who were at sea on cruise ships as governments worldwide closed their ports to stave off the COVID-19 virus.
The consular team also led a multinational effort to end a weeks-long impasse with Australian authorities to allow groups of American and foreign workers aboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship to disembark and return to their home countries.
“I’ve never worked harder or longer to get fewer people on a plane. It was a pretty massive effort,” said Country Consular Coordinator Elizabeth Power, who oversaw the effort and played a key role in the negotiations to obtain permission for the ship workers to leave Australia.
The massive effort included Deputy Chief of Mission Mike Goldman in Canberra and Sydney Consul General Sharon Hudson-Dean, who were involved in the negotiations. Plus, in Sydney, Chief of American Citizen Services Elizabeth Rudisill, and Vice Consuls Benjamin Danforth and Lincoln Frager; and in Perth, Consular Chief Craig Dennison, Perth Policy Officer Meghan Higgins, and locally employed staff member George Schweizer; among others, tracked the ships and facilitated air travel for some passengers.
In all, consular team members accounted for more than 4,300 American passengers and 90 U.S. crew members aboard 29 cruise ships in and around Australian waters during the pandemic.
Most of the cruise ships Down Under successfully navigated the international crisis and disembarked their passengers according to new restrictions enacted by the Australian government to thwart the spread of COVID-19. Alternatively, some cruise ships sailed on to other countries after failing to meet the restrictions.
For weeks in March and April, U.S. consular staff members updated passengers and their families, U.S. congressional leaders, and officials at other U.S. agencies on the whereabouts and circumstances of the luxury liners.
However, as the outbreak spread, employees aboard the Ruby Princess found themselves trapped in long-term confinement without a clear course ahead. Australian officials simply did not want the cruise ship’s employees on their shores.
The perceived threat was that crew members, who traveled in close contact with each other and vacationers for days or weeks at a time, could have acquired COVID-19 on the ship, and could potentially become super-spreaders if they disembarked and traveled throughout Australia and their home countries.
On March 19, the 3,000-passenger Ruby Princess off-loaded 2,700 passengers in Sydney, despite signs of COVID-19 aboard the vessel before the mass disembarkation. Australian authorities linked those passengers to 600 infections and at least 19 deaths in Australia, which represented the worst coronavirus cluster in the country. At least two other vacationers died after returning to the United States.
The results of the stalemate between the Australian government and the cruise ship industry were visible in Sydney, one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in the world. On March 18, at least five cruise ships moored in Sydney Harbor while other vessels remained in Australian waters just outside the city and elsewhere around the island nation.
As the crisis developed, U.S. consular team members quickly grew to appreciate Australia’s share of the $150 billion-a-year global cruise ship industry.
The year opened with more than 270 cruise ships in operation worldwide, with a projected annual passenger load of 32 million people, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group based in Washington.
The Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific region was expected to command 5 percent of the total cruise ship deployments, according to the industry group. That put the region in a tie for fourth largest worldwide, behind only the Caribbean at 32 percent, the Mediterranean at 17 percent, and Europe at 11 percent.
But those projections were issued before the coronavirus spread out of China, sickening millions, dimming national economies, and leaving thousands of vacationers on the high seas without clear expectations of when or where they would dock.
The consular sections in Sydney and Perth launched the monitoring program as team members largely shifted to telework status in response to the directive of Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. to reduce personnel from unnecessary exposure to the virus.
During the first days of the cruise ship odyssey, consular staff members across Australia used online collaboration tools to create and compile a common database of ships in the region, their intended destinations, the number of Americans aboard each, contact information, and more. They expanded and updated the database daily.
They pursued leads and pieced together information from passengers and news reports, and through cold calls to port authorities and to the cruise ships’ company headquarters, among other sources.
“The key question, of course, was how many Americans were on board? How many passengers? How many crew?” said Frager.
Within days, they built a database that tracked as many as 20 ships across the high seas simultaneously. Employees around the country uploaded new information as they gathered it.
At one point, Perth personnel worked with police and port authorities in the state of Western Australia to devise a plan for more than 1,300 American passengers to disembark from two ships to board flights to the western United States, or to Qatar for connecting flights to the eastern United States.
On the day of the scheduled disembarkation, police halted passengers from leaving one of the ships, the MS Amsterdam, which is operated by the Holland America Line. Perth Consul General David Gainer quickly contacted the state’s head of government, who directed the police to allow most of the vacationers to catch flights home.
The consular team members assisted the final 25 passengers, who originally had booked their cruises through third-party agents, to arrange flights with Qantas Airways just days before the airline suspended service to the U.S.
“At those times, you’re pretty much on call 24/7,” said Dennison. “Until they’re wheels-up, you’re answering phone calls and checking emails at all hours of the day.”
The other notable exception was the Ruby Princess.
On April 5, Australian authorities opened a criminal investigation into the circumstances under which the ship dispersed its passengers into the wilds of Sydney back on March 19.
Authorities ordered the ship to remain in Australian waters and refused to allow non-essential employees to disembark. After being confined to their cabins, frustrated American crew members contacted the embassy for assistance in getting approval to leave the ship to return home.
“It was so highly publicized that it made the advocacy work really hard. There were a lot of political sensitivities in appearing to let more people get off that ship and spread COVID-19 around Sydney. That was the big concern,” said Power.
The U.S. diplomats coordinated with counterparts from New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland to negotiate an agreement with Australian authorities to allow citizens of their respective countries to leave the ship.
Members of the international coalition worked for days with officials from the Australian Border Force and New South Wales state police force, as well as executives from Carnival Cruise Lines, which owns the ship, and United Airlines to establish a safe method to get the workers out.
By then, the Ruby Princess had docked at Port Kembla, in Wollongong, about 51 miles south of Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport, which added another element to the puzzle.
Eventually, the parties agreed to test each crew member. Crew members who tested negative for coronavirus were transported to an airport hotel for an overnight stay, then straight to the airport for flights home. Crew members who tested positive were quarantined in Australia for 14 days.
On April 21, 12 American-citizen cruise ship employees finally disembarked the Ruby Princess and flew to San Francisco the next day. Another employee, who had dual U.S-U.K. citizenship, flew to Europe instead. Crew members from the other countries departed for their homes as well.
“Navigating all of the logistical provisions, as well as all of the health-related provisions, on top of all the political sensitivities, well, it became very complex,” said Power.
She attributed three factors to the successful outcome: consular staff members across Australia working together using online collaboration tools; representatives of the multinational coalition presenting a unified front to government officials and business leaders; and the pre-existing close ties between the United States and Australia.
“It was clear from the start, even before we had approval from the Australian authorities, that they wanted to help us,” Power said.
“I credit that to the strength of the bilateral relationship and work that had been done on the alliance over the years. That was really important. I know that sounds like just a political talking point, but honestly, you could feel it,” she said.
Paul Giblin is a vice consul at ConGen Sydney.