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Failure to comply with US COVID-19 regulations could lead to civil penalties

A recent circular published by Skuld Club, comes to remind operators of the potential risk of vessel detention, civil and criminal penalties in the US in the event of non-compliance with recent COVID-19 regulations.

As Skuld informs, an operator mistakenly failed to comply with the required COVD-19 reporting and received a letter from the US Coast Guard advising that departure clearance was being withheld and civil penalties might be imposed.

The incident

The vessel sailed to the US from Canada and no sick crewmembers were aboard. When the vessel arrived in port, the Master was required to execute an Attestation of Hazardous Condition Letter, prepared by the local Coast Guard office, which had three sections. He was required to initial and sign each section.

The Master initialed, dated and signed the prepared Attestation of Hazardous Condition Letter form which has been presented to him. It is not clear if he understood the phrase "Schengen Area" on the Coast Guard form or fully appreciated all the specific countries that were so categorized.

It is also not clear if he understood that transiting through a European airport constitutes "contact with another person" from the restricted areas. As it turns out, replacement crew signed on the vessel in Canada only five days before the vessel arrived in a US port and several of the replacement crew originated from restricted countries and/or flew from their home countries through a connecting airport in another restricted country.

When the US Port State Control investigators contacted immigration authorities to determine the accuracy of the Master's Attestation of Hazardous Condition Letter, it learned that that several crewmembers were from or flew through restricted countries in the past 14 days.

As a result, the US Coast Guard issued a letter to the Master advising that the vessel would not be cleared to depart because the Coast Guard believed the vessel owners and operators may be subject to a civil penalty. The letter further advised that Customs and Border Protection had withheld departure clearance.

Following the Club correspondent's involvement, it was agreed the Master would accept and sign a Letter of Warning and that no fine or filing of security would be needed. As a result, the vessel sailed without delay.

If accurate answers were given to the three questions on the Attestation Letter, it would not have impacted the vessel's ability to call the US. A vessel is permitted to call the US with crewmembers who are from or who have transited through a restricted country. All that would have occurred is that the crewmembers would have been restricted to the vessel as per the COVID-19 regulations. It was the failure to accurately answer the questions in the Attestation Letter which created the problems encountered,

highlighted Skuld.