While Congress shelters at home, government negotiators are sitting at the “Big Peoples’ Table,” dickering with D.C. lobbyists who want a share of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

President Trump has commented that he’s talked with the CEOs of Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian cruise lines about their desperate need for bailout help.

First, a full disclosure, I have never taken a cruise for a variety of reasons, including that I have zero-control when it comes to buffets and 24-hours-a-day desserts. I do admit though that I have cruised once beyond the sight of land in a large boat.

That voyage, during the early 1960s was when, as a young Marine, I was aboard a U.S. Navy Amphibious Assault Ship, practicing combat assault landings. I know that it can’t count as cruising, because we didn’t bring evening clothes, nor did we get invited to dine at the Captain’s Table, but I do remember that the Navy chow was great. No midnight desserts, though.

I do know that I most certainly would not put myself on a 12-deck or more tiered, elevator-escalator serviced mini-city, crammed with upwards of 8,000 fellow passengers and crew, and looking like it’s ready to tip over in a light wind.

I agree that the cruise line industry has been torpedoed by the COVID-19 virus, but let’s take a closer look whether the bailouts for some by the American taxpayers would be legal.

Over the past 10 years, the cruise ship owners raced to build the largest leviathan vessels afloat. The passenger density pack increased and each regal ship had more interior cabins that have no daylight or fresh air access.

These gargantuan mega-ships soon became virtual Petri dishes out on at sea. Each season, more cruise ships were returning to their home ports after respiratory and gastrointestinal viruses had wreaked havoc with the passengers and crews.

The cruisers, as they call themselves, were not to be deterred, many falsely believing that the only risk they faced was when the ship’s casino opened its doors to take their money. This spring, many of them learned that the trip of a lifetime could turn into their worst nightmare, possibly even taking their lives.

Newscasts have brought into our homes film and horrifying stories of COVID-19 rampaging through many of the world’s biggest cruise ships. This virus, tagged “The Beast” by New York Gov. Cuomo, has needed only one infected passenger or crew member to board ship, and once launched, undetected and unchallenged, to search for its cornered prey.

Many interior cabin passengers were then confined in large windowless cabins – boxes with only recycled air, dwindling food, diminishing meds, failing toilets, and almost no medical support.

The regular scheduled ports of call turned the contaminated ships away. Desperate captains sought any sanctuary port, but many of these vessels then became drifting-at-sea quarantine warehouses because they lacked the medical staff and equipment to fight “The Beast.”

Though many of these stranded-at-sea ships, some with the name Princess on their stern, were foreign-flagged, the U.S. government came to their rescue.

Isolated ports were sealed off, and military medical teams tested, processed, and transported the multi-nationals to secluded military bases. There, they were further tested and monitored during a 14-day quarantine confinement. For many, that two-week long trip-of-a-lifetime had become a six-week trip to hell.

A large number of the cruise lines are foreign-flagged, not incorporated in the United States. Dan King photo

Those ship-board images have been burned into our national psyche. With a “No Sail” order and almost no cruising demand, more than 100 cruise ships are now moored and idle with more than 75,000 crew members housed on those vessels.

Now back to the earlier question of a bailout for the cruise line industry. Those cruise companies that are incorporated in the U.S. and whose ships are American-flagged, are eligible under the large business category, but I hope there will be some strings attached.

We’ve seen that big isn’t necessarily the best or safest for the cruising public. That domestic ship relief funding should be conditional on new one-minute response testing, more effective screening, roll back passenger density, enhanced on-board quarantine protocols, and full medical shipboard support.

A large number of the cruise lines are foreign-flagged, not incorporated in the U.S. Why? Foreign-flagged cruise lines escape American corporate taxes, are exempt from our federal minimum-wage law, avoid American maritime labor laws and health standards, and are often able to escape the American justice system when a crew member commits a crime at sea.

The Carnival line, with its Princess ships, is incorporated in Panama, Royal Caribbean’s home port is Liberia, and the Norwegian line is incorporated in Bermuda. The majority of their cruisers may be American, but the flags flying on the sterns of their cruise ships are not the Stars and Stripes. If you’ve taken a cruise, go online, search out the ship and see if it was a foreign-flagged vessel.

My advice, despite the president’s concerns, is that since they’re not American companies and therefore not eligible for our funding, that each company should apply to their own flag country’s relief and recovery program funds. I’ll take the bet that they don’t even have one.

But, there’s always a “but” and the devil is hiding in the details when legislation is being written, especially when there’s billions of dollars at stake.

Language, a carve out, was inserted into the Cares Act that foreign corporations, yet unnamed as always, that have a significant impact on a regional area could be eligible for relief funding from the American taxpayer through this loophole.

In both crime dramas and governmental gimmickry, they always advise you to, “follow the money.” Keep your eyes and ears open for what unfolds in Washington with the possibly loop-holed foreign-flagged cruise line industry receiving your tax dollars.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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