Celebrity chef José Andrés’s disaster relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen is once again donating meals to the passengers and crew members of a cruise ship stricken by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. After serving fresh food last month to passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess in Japan, World Central Kitchen (WCK) is now serving meals to the 2,400 passengers and 1,000 crew members on the Grand Princess in California, another ship on which passengers have contracted COVID-19.
Princess is a subsidiary of Carnival Cruises, a for-profit entity whose net income last year was 3 billion. So why is WCK, a nonprofit funded by donations, stepping in to help a billion-dollar corporation that could likely front the bill to feed its own customers? For one: “This is a unique emergency situation, and WCK has experience preparing large numbers of meals in emergencies,” says Nate Mook, World Central Kitchen’s CEO. “We are experts at rapidly setting up kitchens, and establishing safe logistics processes to get food to where it needs to go — whether in the middle of a hurricane in the Bahamas, cholera outbreak in Mozambique, after an earthquake in Puerto Rico, or in this case, a viral epidemic.”
The Grand Princes docked Monday in the port of Oakland, where its passengers have begun a disembarkation process that’s expected to last several days. 21 people onboard have tested positive for the novel coronavirus (19 crew members and two passengers). US passengers are disembarking and heading to 14-day quarantines at military bases, while foreign passengers will be repatriated, according to USA Today. Crew will remain onboard and the ship will depart the port, with quarantine plans for the crew still being determined, per Princess. WCK will continue to feed crew members while they’re in the port and is handing out to-go meals for disembarking passengers.
There’s no doubt that the food is necessary: Cruises don’t typically stock much in the way of extra food supplies, explains Andrew Coggins, a business professor at Pace University and an expert on cruises. In this case, the Grand Princess was probably only prepared for its 15-day round trip to the Hawaiian islands, not the extra time it spent idling outside California waiting for a berth. Supplies for passengers, who have been confined to their quarters for days, appeared to run low as the ship circled San Francisco Bay: Sunday’s dinner was “just a roll and three pieces of ravioli each,” one couple told the San Francisco Chronicle. A 77-year-old British woman told the BBC that the food was “rotten” and “terrible,” yet passengers were still reduced to fighting over it.
With the majority of the ship’s coronavirus cases felt among its crew members, it makes sense that the Grand Princess would need its meals to be prepared off-site by non-crew members. “If you are in a place, a hotel, a cruise ship, where everyone could be infected... you want to make sure food is prepared outside,” Andrés explained in a recent CNN appearance with Anderson Cooper. WCK is cooking meals for passengers at a San Francisco kitchen, then transporting them to Oakland, where they’re being placed onboard the Grand Princess by forklift.
Carnival and its philanthropic arm, the Carnival Foundation, also have a history of business cooperation with Andrés and his nonprofit. During Hurricane Dorian last year, Carnival and the Carnival Foundation were among the organizations supporting WCK’s relief work in the Bahamas; The Carnival Foundation pledged $2 million in funding and in-kind support for relief efforts there, using two Carnival cruise ships to deliver donated items to WCK and others. Carnival also conducted donations drives for WCK, while guests and employees donated a combined $350,000 to WCK and Direct Relief, another disaster relief nonprofit.
Although our Relief Team is not going onto the #GrandPrincess, we take every precaution when it comes to food & logistics. From the truck, we have a hand-off between two fork lifts at a safe perimeter, and @SamBloch1 is sprayed down after each meal delivery. #ChefsForCalifornia pic.twitter.com/KdBo5j5TW7— World Central Kitchen (@WCKitchen) March 11, 2020
While WCK has previously offered relief in the wake of man-made disasters — serving meals to furloughed federal employees during the government shutdown last year — the Grand Princess and Diamond Princess efforts still stand out from the rest. “Normally, the passengers are the responsibility of the cruise line,” explains Coggins. When a passenger ship enters a port, it has to go through CQI: Customs, Quarantine (a certification that there are no communicable diseases onboard), and Immigration, before passengers can go ashore. “If a ship fails quarantine, it’s [usually] up to the ship or company to correct the problem,” says Coggins. “But in the case of COVID-19, the government has to get involved because we know so little about it and it’s so contagious.”
Despite urging from other government officials, President Donald Trump has yet to issue an emergency declaration, which would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to allocate $40 billion in disaster relief funds, for COVID-19. Without government aid, WCK’s support becomes all the more useful. “Our role here is to support the response, working closely with Princess, the State of California, and federal agencies to make sure everyone remains safe,” says Mook. “[While] others are coordinating the disembarking of guests, quarantine process, etc. WCK is coordinating the food element.”
Even with the help, troubles for Carnival are far from over. “For the cruise industry, we’re probably looking at [an effect on sales] on the level of 9/11 [or] SARS,” says Coggins, citing previous incidents that frightened away customers. Before the Grand Princess and Diamond Princess coronavirus cases, the cruise industry was faring very favorably. 32 million passengers were expected to take cruises in 2020, and cruise revenues have roughly doubled in the last decade. Now, the potentially compromised industry could be due for a government bail out. In a press conference following Wall Street’s worst day in a decade, Trump claimed he would begin working on economic relief for industries damaged by the downturn, including the cruise industry.