‘They absolutely did not care’: Crew members sue Celebrity Cruises over virus response

LMAW

Miami Herald

Crew members of Celebrity Cruises filed a class-action suit in federal court Tuesday accusing the company of negligence in how it handled the spread of the coronavirus.

Michael Winkleman, of Miami-based maritime law firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, filed the lawsuit in Miami federal court. This is Winkleman’s second lawsuit against a cruise line since the coronavirus started to spread. The first covers passengers of the Costa Luminosa.

Celebrity is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Ltd. Royal Caribbean said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The Celebrity complaint accuses the company of exposing its employees to the virus by not handing out masks and gloves, not enforcing social distancing and keeping employees aboard even as the coronavirus spread on the ship.

On the Celebrity Apex, at least 217 crew members preparing for the ship’s planned April launch tested positive for COVID-19, according to Ouest France. The newly built vessel never left the shipyard.

Winkleman said it’s clear the cruising industry mishandled the response to the virus, leaving tens of thousands of crew members at risk.

“It was either stupidity or complete ignorance,” he said. “It’s a brazen failure to protect their employees.”

The lead plaintiff, 54-year-old Alexandra Nedeltcheva, was a waitress aboard the Celebrity Apex as it received its final touches in Saint-Nazare, France, as the coronavirus started to rage around the world. She tested positive for COVID-19 on March 31.

From the Airbnb in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she is currently isolating from her family, Nedeltcheva said she has never been treated worse in her 11 years working for Celebrity Cruises.

“I would never have thought it was going to come to this point. The last five weeks have been a complete disaster, and I think they absolutely did not care,” she said. “I will definitely lose my job, but I thought this time I can’t keep it quiet.”

She boarded the ship March 2 while it sat in the Les Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard. She was surprised she wasn’t screened at all before boarding, as the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan was still making headlines as a hotbed of the virus.

Before long, she said, there were 1,400 crew members aboard the ship all working to get it ready for its maiden voyage to Southampton, England, in late March.

That didn’t include the hundreds of contractors from around the world painting and installing light fixtures on the ship. Contractors had free rein to enter and exit the ship freely with no mask or gloves. Then they would come to the restaurant to eat, which left workers there worried about exposure.

“We did ask if we could wear masks and our supervisor said no,” Nedeltcheva said. “I understand if there were guests to think ‘don’t cause panic’ or whatever, but it’s just crew and contractors.

“I understand it’s always like this, that the crew is the last ones the company cares about, but we didn’t have guests,” she said.

Cruise companies around the world stopped sailing on March 13, but life continued aboard the Celebrity Apex, even after France instituted its own lockdown on March 17. On that date, crew members were ordered to stay on the ship, while contractors still had the freedom to come and go.

On March 21, the company hosted a party for crew on board, complete with free alcohol and crowded lines at the buffet. Video posted on YouTube by a crew member immediately caught media attention, which led to a lecture from cruise officials about how crew members should not speak to the press and be careful what they post on social media, Nedeltcheva said.

Crew members started to test positive for COVID-19 on March 23. By the 25th, Celebrity ordered all crew members to their rooms and handed out masks, according to the lawsuit.

“It was too late,” Nedeltcheva said. “When they gave us masks, it was already onboard and circulating.”

When all 1,400-plus crew members were tested a few days after the lockdown on the ship, Nedeltcheva was one of 217 positive results.

From her cabin, she said, she read news of Celebrity crew members getting infected — and even dying — on ships around the world. The stress was intense. She wondered if she would survive her illness. At one point, she said, she contemplated suicide.

The cruise line sent her home on April 10 on a 20-hour journey that involved a private charter bus with other crew members as well as commercial flights. She worries about the hundreds of other crew members, some sick and some healthy, still aboard the ship.

“I wish I listened to my gut and I didn’t go on the ship, honestly,” she said.