The stock market has been sensitive to the ever-shifting situation with the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, and on Wednesday, bad news sent stocks lower. There's been a significant uptick in the number of cases involving the disease recently, including in several states that hadn't previously seen a high incidence of COVID-19. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI), S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC), and Nasdaq Composite were down between 2% and 3%.

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Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

The travel industry has really taken it on the chin since the pandemic started, as would-be travelers have been unable or unwilling to go far from their homes. Airline stocks lost altitude, but today's fears about a new phase of growing coronavirus outbreaks took an especially hard toll on cruise ship stocks, which were down 11% to 12%. Here's a closer look at what cruise ship operators are facing right now.

Big problems for big cruise states

A huge number of cruises leave from ports in states along the Gulf Coast, especially Texas and Florida. Both of those states have had a rising number of COVID-19 cases in recent days, causing new alarm and even leading some other states -- that went through their most difficult periods with the disease earlier -- to look at forcing travelers from specific areas to go through quarantine protocols upon entry.

In Texas, new case counts were running at roughly 1,000 per day through much of April and May. But in June, as the state looked to reopen its economy, counts spiked, and the last two days have seen more than 5,000 newly reported COVID-19 cases.

Two empty deck chairs on a wood deck overlooking a railing and ship's wake, with sun setting amid storm clouds.

Image source: Getty Images.

Florida has gone through a similar experience. As recently as three weeks ago, the state had daily counts of 500 to 1,000 new cases. This past week, numbers have generally been in the 3,000 to 4,000 range per day.

Officials in both states have been reluctant to reverse course with their reopening strategies. It's unclear how bad things might get or what would prompt a policy reversal.

On the financial edge

For cruise companies, the prospects of further delays in new sailings are already an unfortunate reality. Earlier this week, Carnival (NYSE:CCL) canceled all of its cruises through the end of September. That's even longer than the similar suspensions that Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NYSE:NCLH) and Royal Caribbean Cruises (NYSE:RCL) have already put in place.

Some investors are running out of patience. Credit analysts at S&P cut their bond rating on Carnival to BB-, down three notches from its previous BBB rating and putting the cruise line into junk bond status. Rival credit rating agency Moody's had already given junk ratings to Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian.

The news will only make it harder for cruise ship companies to find new financing if they need it in the future. If delays in setting sail get even longer, that could prove costly for the three companies -- and for the investors who put their capital to work for the cruise ship operators prior to now. Shareholders of Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean will have to keep a close eye on how COVID-19 case counts progress in order to assess whether the rising risks are too large to bear.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.