Coronavirus Florida: With cruises suspended, empty ships anchor off Pinellas coast

An agreement allows cruise lines to park their passenger-less ships at sea because of limited space in Tampa’s port.
Published Mar. 19, 2020|Updated Mar. 20, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG — Out on a St. Patrick’s Day fishing trip, David Mokotoff and a buddy found themselves dwarfed by floating giants.

Three cruise ships had dropped anchor not far from one another in an area about 18 miles west of St. Pete Beach. Aboard his friend’s 26-foot boat, Mokotoff shot a video with his smart phone and wondered aloud why they were there.

“Three cruise ships parked,” the 72-year-old retired cardiologist says on the video as he pans from the Brilliance of the Seas looming nearby to two other ships in the distance. “I’m guessing they’re quarantined.”

No, but he’s not wrong that the coronavirus pandemic is a factor.

The ships are anchored there as part of an agreement with Port Tampa Bay, said Lisa Wolf-Chason, communications director for the port. With cruises suspended to limit the spread of the disease and port space limited, the cruise lines need a place to park their passenger-less ships. The ships occasionally come to the port and dock to get supplies, Wolf-Chason said.

“We’re allowing the ships that are docked off shore to come into port as needed to fill up on provisions and supplies for the crew they have on board,” she said. “None of them have passengers.”

Ports typically already have plans in place that allow for ships to anchor at designated locations offshore to wait out heavy fog, but this situation is different.

On March 13, Cruise Lines International Association suspended for 30 days all cruise ship operations to and from the United States. By then, a cruise ship called the Grand Princess that been stranded for days off the coast of California after passengers tested positive for the virus was finally able to sail into the Port of Oakland.

The suspension left the cruise lines in need of a place to keep their idled ships.

“It’s probably a very unique experience for our lifetime,” Wolf-Chason said.

The Port Tampa Bay agreement includes cruise lines that sail from the port and some that don’t: Carnival, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian and Celebrity Cruises. The plan is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On Thursday, three cruise ships were docked at the port and four more were anchored offshore, Wolf-Chason said.

The website showed the four ships: Celebrity’s Infinity, Silhouette and Summit, and Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, the 13-deck, nearly 1,000-foot long ship in Mokotoff’s video. A fifth ship owned by Carnival is on the way and will be anchored there by Monday, Wolf-Chason said.

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Mokotoff spotted one cruise ship in the area during a paid fishing charter trip on Sunday. There were two more there when he and his friend returned on St. Patrick’s Day on the friend’s boat.

“We didn’t know if they were empty and just had no place to go, or if there were actually passengers on it,” he said in an interview.

Now the mystery is solved for Mokotoff and many other boaters who presumably wondered. And there seems to be a lot more boat traffic in area waters since officials have asked the public to stay home or at least avoid large groups to limit the spread of the disease.

“In terms of entertainment, you’re only exposed to one or two people and you’re out there on the ocean,” Mokotoff said. “For the value of your dollar and safety, what else can you do anymore?”

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