Carnival Cruises CEO defends coronavirus pandemic response

Carnival suspended outbound cruises in mid-March, weeks after roughly 700 passengers became infected with COVID-19

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald defended his company's response to the new coronavirus outbreak, which prompted the business to halt earlier this month, in a recent interview as questions circulate about whether the action soon have been taken sooner.

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Donald told Axios' Dion Rabouin he did not believe it was a mistake to continue running cruises – at times even at discounted prices – despite knowing that multiple passengers on a number of their ships had tested positive for COVID-19.

"If you look at the actual number of cases, cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus," he said at the start of the segment, which aired Sunday on "Axios on HBO." "We have hundreds of cruise ships out there. Very few had cases on them and the one that had the most cases was very early on when no one understood hardly anything."

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One of Carnival Corp.'s Princess Cruises ships had to be quarantined in February off the coast of Japan for two weeks after 10 passengers were initially diagnosed with the COVID-19. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected.

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And in the beginning of March, Carnival's Grand Princess docked in Oakland, California, carrying more than 3,500 people from 54 countries.

Evidence showed the vessel was the breeding ground for a cluster of at least 20 cases, including one death, after a previous voyage. It was briefly held off the coast so people with symptoms could be tested.

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When Donald was grilled about whether or not his rationale was "counterintuitive" considering how often cruise ship passengers are close to others aboard the vessel, the chief executive fired back: "A cruise ship is not a theater. It is not an arena."

"It is more like Central Park," he said. "There's lots of natural social distancing. The ship's so large. People are not always gathered and clumped together."

Donald in Las Vegas in January 2017. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Donald lauded the ship's ability to handle a COVID-19, saying officials on board could control the spread once caught.

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"It manifests, we identify, people get sick, there's a medical clinic on board," he said. "We isolate, so, in effect, you control the spread. Whereas, when you’re in a restaurant, or you’re in a public library, in a school, that does not happen. That's all I’m suggesting is that a cruise ship is not a riskier environment – people perceive it that way, but the reality is, it’s not."

President Trump tweeted earlier this month that four major cruise ship companies, including Carnival, had agreed to suspend trips from the U.S. for 30 days.

The decision came after U.S. State Department advised against any travel on cruise ships, particularly for those with underlying health conditions. The advisory said the CDC has noted an "increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment."

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Carnival, reportedly the largest cruise line in the world, had already suspended its Princess line of cruises for nearly two months. It said 18 ships that had cruises scheduled between March 12 and May 10 would be canceled.

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Trump later said Carnival's Chair, Micky Arison, invited the government to use some of the cruise line's ships as makeshift hospitals that could provide as many as 1,000 hospital rooms.

The Grand Princess cruise ship passes the Golden Gate Bridge as it arrives from Hawaii in San Francisco on Feb. 11. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

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"These temporary cruise ship hospital rooms can be quickly converted to install and connect remote patient monitoring devices over the ship’s high-speed network – providing cardiac, respiratory, oxygen saturation and video monitoring capabilities," Carnival said in a statement at the time. "The rooms also have bathroom facilities, private balconies with access to sun and fresh air, as well as isolation capabilities, as needed."

FOX News' Morgan Phillips and The Associated Press contributed to this report.