Even as the novel coronavirus spread around the globe, travel companies specializing in raucous college Spring Breaks actively encouraged students to keep their reservations for boozy trips outside the country.
Nearly 50 students at the University of Texas at Austin tested positive for the virus this week, after returning from a vacation to Cabo San Lucas organized by travel company JusCollege. The company has been criticized for downplaying the risks of travel and refusing to give refunds. But it wasn’t the only one.
Emails reviewed by The Daily Beast show College Party Cruise, a Miami-based travel company owned by Ignite Cruises, told students as recently as March 10 that there was “no reason to be panicked” about the coronavirus.
“We [the CPC staff] have been on the cruise since Monday 3/2 and will be onboard until 3/20,” College Party Cruise founder David Lazarus wrote to a student who requested a refund, citing concerns about coronavirus. “We would not be on the ship back-to-back if we did not think it was safe for us.”
Lazarus went on to state that Royal Caribbean, the third-party cruise operator, had mandatory screenings for every passenger onboard and that sanitization standards were “extremely high” even before the current crisis.
“The cruise ship is 1000 times cleaner than being on campus,” he continued. “When was the last time you saw someone on campus disinfect desks in classrooms, railings, or elevator buttons? You see this done on the cruise at least every half hour.”
He added that no refunds would be given “regardless of the reason,” but that Royal Caribbean’s latest coronavirus policy allowed travelers a “future cruise credit” to be used by the end of 2021.
Lazarus later told The Daily Beast that he had simply been conveying Royal Caribbean’s cancellation policy, which College Party Cruise had “no control” over.
“If Royal Caribbean does not provide refunds, there is nothing we can do as a travel agency,” he said.
“My clients appreciate our sincere emails and I do stand by my statement in regards to the safety on board at that time. We had over 1,000 guests sail on our March 9th cruise and they had the best Spring Break of their lives (their words, not mine),” he said, noting that Royal Caribbean had canceled cruises later in March “once COVID-19 did become a problem.”
Multiple employees were medically evacuated from Royal Caribbean cruise ships last week due to respiratory issues. At least one crew member aboard the Celebrity Infinity ship died, according to USA Today. The company would not confirm whether the illnesses and death were related to COVID-19. All Royal Caribbean ships have been docked until at least May 11.
The third week of College Party Cruise, slated to run March 16-20, was canceled due to the Royal Caribbean docking. Lazarus said all guests on the at trip were given either a 125 percent future cruise credit or a full refund. The Daily Beast also reached out to Royal Caribbean for comment.
Less than a month ago, however, representatives for College Party Cruises were advertising a “HUGE FLASH SALE” on the third week of cruises. “Haven’t booked yet because the price was high this is your chance!!” a representative wrote on a College Party Cruise Facebook page on 10 March. “6 days until sail! This is the lowest the prices have been in months!”
The company also continued to post photos from its recent cruises on social media, even as other travel companies went conspicuously dark. Its most recent Instagram post shows more than 50 scantily clad coeds crowding around a pool on the March 9-13 cruise from Miami to the Bahamas.
“Week 2 = EPIC,” the company posted on Instagram two weeks ago, alongside video of students dancing in packed clubs, chugging from beer bongs, and huddling for photos. “We would not mind being quarantined with our week 2 friends 😈💃 Who’s ready to go back?”
“If you’re going week 3 you better not fuckin cancel,” wrote one commenter on a post three weeks ago. “We’re here for a good time not a long time !!!!!”
JusCollege appears to have sent similar messages to some of the 178 University of Texas students who booked a trip through them to Cabo San Lucas on March 14-19.
In one email sent to students, and later shared online, the company stated that “our travel destinations remain among the safest and most enjoyable places in the world to visit right now.”
“We hope that you choose to enjoy your Spring Break with us—we’re currently in our 2nd week of Cabo and have had almost 5000 travelers, all with no issues,” the email continued. “Flights have been fully operational and we have had nearly 100% turn out. Our events are completely operational with zero impact from COVID-19 thus far.”
The company also continued with its existing cancellation plan, which did not allow for refunds of any kind within 90 days of the trip’s start date. Some students told local news station KVUE they chose to go on the trip because they did not want to lose their money.
“It’s the most expensive trip I’ve personally ever gone on,” UT Austin sophomore Ross Fisher said. “It would have been made easier had they just simply offered to refund us and done the right thing.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a JusCollege spokesperson said Mexico was not under a federal travel advisory at the time the trip departed, and that customers were updated “in line with the changing U.S. government guidelines.” A message posted on the JusCollege website Saturday suggested some trips were being postponed until a later date.
The spokesperson added that JusCollege was working with airlines and hotels to get “the best possible outcome for our customers—whether that’s a credit or partial refund.”
“Our thoughts are with the students who are ill and the health-care providers and public-health officials who are working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
At least one public official had harsh words for students who elected to travel during the pandemic.
“Quit being an ass,” Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen told local news station KXAN. “Get over yourselves. Whether you think this is an issue or not, it is. Whether you think it could affect you or not, it does. The reality of it is, if I’m a college kid who’s going to Spring Break in Mexico, you’re affecting a lot of people. Grow up.”