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Port Miami navigates stormy seas in pandemic

The Norwegian Encore cruise ship is docked at the Port of Miami on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Miami, Fla.
The Norwegian Encore cruise ship is docked at the Port of Miami on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Miami, Fla. (Al Diaz / MIAMI HERALD)

MIAMI – The coronavirus pandemic is roiling the seas at Port Miami.

The Miami Herald reports that while some terminal construction has continued amid the pandemic, much of the $7 billion passenger cruise economy associated with PortMiami is drydocked, as is the $2 billion the industry generates at Port Everglades. The industry halted cruises in mid-March, and most companies have canceled sailings through mid-September. At least one-fourth of the ocean-going fleet has experienced COVID-19 outbreaks resulting in at least 82 deaths among passengers and crew, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

In November, PortMiami bustled with construction workers building five new cruise terminals and two cruise company headquarters. Fiscal year 2020 was set to break the port’s 2019 record of 6.8 million passengers, up 22 percent from 2018.

The county agreed to pay $700 million toward the projects, and the cruise companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises and Virgin Voyages — agreed to repay the county $5.8 billion over the next 20 to 62 years.

The port itself hasn’t had to dip into reserves, port director Juan Kuryla said, thanks to continued business on the cargo side — estimated at about $35 billion — and cost cutting measures like ending cruise company marketing incentives and leaving county positions unfilled. Mayor Carlos Gimenez has waived berthing fees — totaling around $8 million from mid-March through mid-June — to support the industry.

“We’re with the cruise lines in the good times,” Gimenez said in March. “And we’re going to be with them in the bad times.”

Kuryla now has to consider a once-unthinkable scenario where cruising remains banned indefinitely. If that were to happen, he said, PortMiami would exhaust half of its reserves by the end of 2021 before the county would consider a new operating model, possibly pivoting to more cargo and halting the construction projects.