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Titanic clash over vaccination requirements pits Florida governor against potent cruise industry as it prepares to restart

  • Author: Mary Ellen Klas, Taylor Dolven, Miami Herald
  • Updated: June 15
  • Published June 15

Royal Caribbean's newly renovated Navigator of the Seas docks at PortMiami in 2019. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)

MIAMI -- The return of operations for one of South Florida’s most iconic industries has turned into a battle of the heavyweights.

On the one side is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Emboldened by growing approval ratings, DeSantis refuses to budge from a state law he sought that bars the cruise industry from requiring passengers be vaccinated.

On the other: The industry, a powerful pillar of Florida tourism, is quietly crafting a work-around for the governor’s mandate as it seeks to restore public confidence and restart cruising after a 15-month shutdown that has put thousands of Florida jobs on hold and cost the industry billions — not including losses to its suppliers.

The vaccine conflict is not an ideal setting for the industry’s restart, said Rockford Weitz, director of the Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

“This is definitely not how the cruise industry would prefer it to unfold,” he said. “Unfortunately, the politics of vaccines has put the industry between a rock and a hard place — between Florida and the CDC who have totally different views on how they should operate their businesses.”

Along with the economic costs are the potential health consequences. According to experts, vaccines are the most important way to prevent deadly COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships.

Cruises have resumed from Caribbean ports and, so far, all adult passengers have been required to be vaccinated. In at least one case, those requirements prevented what may have otherwise become a deadly outbreak.

At U.S. ports, some cruise companies vow to defy Florida’s ban and restart cruises as soon as June 26 using the same vaccine requirements, in violation of Florida’s law. Other companies have backed down, saying they won’t require proof of vaccines. At least one, Royal Caribbean International, has embarked on a two-pronged approach, encouraging all passengers to be vaccinated and, while not requiring them, imposing more restrictions and costs on unvaccinated passengers.

The cruise industry, which employs about 600,000 South Floridians directly and indirectly and has ports in seven Florida cities, is so important to the state’s economy that DeSantis sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April challenging its cruise safety rules and demanding that cruises be allowed to resume immediately without restrictions.

With just two weeks until the first U.S. cruise since March 2020 leaves from a U.S. port — Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades — companies say they are still determining what to do about vaccines for cruises from Florida.

Although Florida law prohibits businesses from asking patrons if they have been vaccinated, there is nothing stopping the cruise lines from having passengers volunteer the information. Celebrity Cruises is telling passengers 16 years old and older that if they choose not to volunteer proof of vaccination, they will be treated as if they are unvaccinated and be required to follow CDC guidelines for masks and social distancing as well as be subjected to COVID-19 testing — at additional cost.

Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises parent company, originally said it would require all passengers to be vaccinated, then softened its stance to say that passengers who board their cruises from Florida are “strongly recommended” to get vaccinated before traveling. And in a statement to the Miami Herald this week, it indicated that it would subject non-vaccinated passengers to more restrictions and costs than vaccinated passengers.

“For cruises departing from Florida ports all guests are strongly encouraged to be fully vaccinated,” spokesperson Jonathon Fishman said in a statement. “Guests eligible but not fully vaccinated will be subject to testing and additional health protocols at their own expense. Children not eligible for vaccines will be subject to complimentary testing and health protocols.”

According to Fishman, passenger surveys indicate that “90% of them have said that they will be fully vaccinated or plan to be prior to their first cruise” but Royal Caribbean International has not indicated how it will differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers.

Celebrity Cruises has already tested the value of vaccinations. On Thursday two passengers aboard the Celebrity Millennium ship — the Caribbean’s first since November — tested positive for COVID-19.

The infected passengers were vaccinated and reportedly asymptomatic, the company said. Their infections were discovered when the ship staff began conducting antigen tests required in order for passengers to disembark when it returns to St. Maarten on Saturday. Celebrity Cruises provided private transportation for them to return home.

DeSantis: personal liberties over free market

The conflict between the governor and the cruise ship titans has served to burnish the governor’s libertarian image among vaccination opponents in brewing culture wars as he seeks reelection next year and a growing national political profile.

But it also has raised questions about the Republican governor’s decision to use government mandates, instead of the free market, to determine what corporations that have been among his party’s closest allies should do.

“It’s behavioral socialism,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat. “The definition of socialism is the means and manufacturing, production and control of things that are under the government. These cruise companies are making decisions based on a reasonable contemplation of liability, safety, and reputation.”

The conflict could result in precedent-setting implications for the industry at ports across the nation. Florida and Texas ban the notion of compulsory vaccines, arguing individual liberty, while other states with significant cruise traffic such as Alaska and California allow it.

The cruise companies could make a strong case that their business is conducted mostly outside of Florida, and therefore the state law doesn’t apply to them, said Martin Davies, director of the Maritime Law Center at Tulane University. Though cruise companies are headquartered in South Florida, they operate as foreign companies.

“You cannot tell us — a foreign company with a foreign flagged ship going to a foreign place — who we can allow to board,” he said. “They definitely have an arguable case if they want to say that the order doesn’t apply to their business.”

The problem for cruise companies, however, is that they screen passengers in the cruise terminal, not on the ship, Davies said, meaning the screening — and breaking of Florida law — will happen in Florida.

Last year, during the early days of the pandemic, DeSantis imposed his first restrictions on the industry when he initially refused to let 450 passengers from the Holland America Line’s Zaandam cruise ship — including 73 with flu-like symptoms — disembark in Florida. Florida eventually became a safe haven for cruise ships turned away by other ports; dozens of passengers and crew members were evacuated to South Florida hospitals and several died.

This year, as the industry sought to sooth fears of people spooked by the stories of passengers and crews trapped on ships for days, DeSantis insisted that they could not mandate vaccinations.

Lobbyists for the industry remained on the sidelines as the Florida Legislature tucked the ban on so-called “vaccine passports” into a bill relating to future pandemics in the final weeks of the legislative session.

“I didn’t hear from a single representative of the cruise industry, either their lobbyists or themselves, about the vaccine passport legislation until the day that it was going on to the floor for a vote,” said Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, sponsor of the House version of SB 2006, which included the vaccine passport ban. “And even then I heard from one person, who later said, ‘Don’t worry about it’.”

Lobbyists representing the cruise industry would not comment on why they kept such a low profile as the measure was attached as an amendment to the bill.

Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Line said Monday it will resume cruises from Galveston, Texas, on July 3 and, despite that state’s ban, will require vaccines of all passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is also requiring vaccinations of all crew and passengers in an effort to restore consumer confidence.

Cruise CEOs from the three largest companies — Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — could not be reached for this story.

But in a video message posted June 5, Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said that because of the vaccines, his industry will be able to resume sailing after more than 15 months and while his company will comply with the Florida law, he added that it will cost people more who choose not to be vaccinated.

“Due to the health and legal requirements of many jurisdictions, those who are unvaccinated will need to undergo additional testing and other restrictions that necessarily adds to their cost and adds limitations on the cruise for those people who choose to be unvaccinated,” he said. “There would be no additional cost for children who are not eligible for the vaccine.”

When asked if Royal Caribbean meets the intent of the law by not requiring vaccines but imposing greater restrictions on unvaccinated passengers, the governor’s office did not answer.

Calls for an exception

The conflict prompted three South Florida mayors to send a letter to DeSantis June 2 urging him to reconsider his refusal to allow cruise lines to require passengers to be vaccinated.

Broward County Mayor Steve Geller, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis and Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy commended the governor for making the reopening of ports a priority but raised questions about whether the ban on vaccination requirements would have unintended consequences.

“Every indication that we have seen is that many passengers are not willing to start cruising again without knowing that their fellow passengers and the crew are vaccinated,” they wrote. “We are extremely concerned that unless a resolution can be reached, this impasse over the rules will result in the loss of the cruise industry in Broward County and Florida overall.”

On Monday, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Albert Bryan Jr., sent a letter to DeSantis echoing the call to exempt cruise companies from the ban on compulsory vaccinations. He argued that because vaccination rates are low in the Caribbean, unvaccinated passengers arriving at their ports put the region at risk.

Debate over vaccinations

With the deadlines approaching quickly, however, the conflict will have to be resolved soon for the companies to avoid fines of $5,000 per passenger, as the law allows.

Alternatively, they could challenge the state law in court.

Leek, a labor and employment lawyer, acknowledged the courts “could determine that maritime law controls, and the state doesn’t have any power,” he said.

But it’s a different question from the one legislators were tackling when they imposed the vaccine passport ban, he said.

Leek said he and other House Republican leaders did not exempt the cruise industry to the vaccine passport ban because requiring vaccinations would have an unfair and disparate impact on minority populations.

“If you accept as I do that, the most vaccine hesitancy are minority populations, then, to allow any business — cruises or otherwise — to condition the provision of services based on a vaccine passport is to allow a disparate impact on our minority population,” Leek said.

He also argued that because the vaccine was authorized for emergency use only, it was fair to be hesitant.

Leek said there is nothing in the law stopping the cruise industry from requiring passengers to be tested daily for the virus, or when they leave the ship at various ports. Nothing prevents them from requiring masks or quarantining infected passengers, he added.

“The same safety measures that you can use today anyplace else you can use on cruise ships,” he said. “But looking at it from the other perspective. Is it socially acceptable to have a policy that you know is going to exclude people based on their race?”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-West Palm Beach, called that “a very creative argument.” A lawyer, Polsky warned that the policy could lead to conflicts on board ships if unvaccinated passengers become ill. “But it’s twisted logic in my opinion. We should be doing everything to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and this flies in the face of that. The cruise industry wants people vaccinated and they’re saying ‘no’.”

For his part, DeSantis has never argued that vaccine passports discriminated against people based on race. Instead, he has suggested that the need for the ban was to protect personal liberties.

“You have a right to participate in society, without them asking you to divulge this type of health information,” DeSantis told a Fox News audience during a town hall in Orlando on April 29.

Pizzo said it is noteworthy that neither the governor nor Republican supporters of the law objected to the decision by the federal government that allows businesses to require employees to be vaccinated.

“I kind of call bullshit on the truth and veracity of his real position on this because he was willing to go to a certain distance and be a little pregnant, but not go all the way,” he said.

The CDC is recommending that all cruise passengers be vaccinated, but it is not requiring it. Instead, the agency is giving companies two options: require that at least 95% of passengers on a ship are vaccinated and restart cruises immediately, or don’t meet the vaccination threshold and first perform a test cruise with volunteer passengers to make sure other safety protocols are effectively preventing outbreaks.

Dr. Michael Callahan, director of the Clinical Translation, Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, who helped treat and evacuate sick passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships last year, said vaccine requirements are essential to protecting cruise passengers.

“A vaccinated population on land is better protected than a vaccinated population on a cruise ship,” he said via email. “Cruise ship passengers tend to be older, and tend to respond less effectively to the current vaccines. Second, passengers from many U.S. states and crew from many countries mix under conditions that favor virus transmission.”

Still, even if everyone on a cruise ship is vaccinated, there is a chance that someone will get the virus. Callahan worries about the potential for a cruise passenger to unknowingly spread COVID-19 in a Caribbean country with low vaccination rates.

“Vaccines against COVID will bring the cruise industry back, but not without setbacks, and not without first risking variant outbreaks among passengers, crews, and vulnerable populations at ports of call,” Callahan said.

In court filings, lawyers for Florida in its case against the CDC said the the agency is “coercing” companies into requiring vaccines by giving them the two choices. On Thursday, the federal judge in Tampa grilled the agency on its strict cruise safety rules and said he would decide soon whether they can stay in place or not as the case proceeds.

The argument DeSantis made when suing the CDC is that the federal agency has unfairly targeted the industry, and that its requirements for resuming cruises should be voided. Yet ironically, it is those very same companies that want to require vaccinations.

Leek, the ban’s author, suggested that the cruise industry has been applying its standards unevenly, with some companies seeking vaccinations to leave from Florida ports while the same operators don’t require vaccinations for passengers who board ships in other countries. For example, Carnival Corporation brands are requiring passengers to be vaccinated on cruises in the United Kingdom, Greece and Bermuda this summer, but not elsewhere in Europe.

“Why are they conducting cruises around the world where there are no vaccines available?” Leek asked. “I think there’s a lot of very fair questions there.”

In response to questions about the lack of an industry-wide vaccine policy, spokesperson for the lobbying group Cruise Lines International Association Bari Golin-Blaugrund said the industry is looking forward to getting back to business safely.

“Cruisers love to cruise, and our research shows strong support for the robust measures that our members have agreed to adopt in the interest of public health and safety,” she said via email.

Conundrum

As the legislation moved quickly through the House and Senate in the final days of the legislative session in April, several senators — most of them Democrats — raised questions about the likelihood the cruise industry could appease the CDC when it can’t ask passengers if they have been vaccinated.

Sen. Doug Broxson, a Pensacola Republican, answered that the state policy is “letting people that choose not to have a vaccine to be exposed by the other people that are choosing not to have a vaccine.”

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephryhills and the Senate sponsor of the bill, agreed. “I think that’s fair.”

Polsky urged the Senate to consider the danger in that approach.

“If only 5% of the people are potentially exposed to it and that’s 100 people on the ship, then they have to be quarantined and they will fill up the small medical center,” she warned. “Then someone who has a heart attack can’t be treated. That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of this pandemic.”

In his video message, Fain, the Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO, said that while they want everyone on board to be vaccinated, he suggested that the industry would not repeat the mistakes of the past.

“We can enact exact extensive requirements, before people board, designed to prevent the virus from coming on board in the first place,” he said. “Creating a sort of bubble.”

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