DeSantis to Florida cruise lines: No, you're not allowed to require proof of vaccination from passengers

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

I understand why we shouldn’t mandate vaccine passports in order to access government services, and I agree. I also understand why we might want to ban certain “essential” private entities from requiring passports. Whether you support or oppose someone’s decision not to get vaccinated, you don’t want that person barred from the local supermarket and scrambling to figure out how to feed their family because of it.

But I can’t understand DeSantis’s attempt to bar all private businesses from setting their own rules, especially luxury businesses and especially ones that face special risk from COVID. Cruises aren’t any ol’ entertainment industry. They operate many miles offshore and became infamous early in the pandemic for the speed with which mass outbreaks happened among passengers quarantined onboard. It’s reasonable for them to want only the immunized onboard. Granted, cruise lines could ask for proof of a negative COVID test in lieu of proof of vaccination as a condition for boarding, but the tests aren’t perfect. False negatives happen, and even if a negative test is accurate, it may be outdated. Someone could test negative on Wednesday, get infected on Thursday, and board on Friday, with the Wednesday test offered as “proof” that they’re clean.

Vaccination is the surest way to guarantee that there’s no outbreak onboard in which someone becomes very ill without ready access to a hospital. So why wouldn’t DeSantis make an exception to his new policy banning Florida businesses from requiring proof of immunity? It makes more sense to me as a political pander than as a matter of prudence: He’s angling to run for president and wants to be able to tell righties that he Stood For Freedom (and, tacitly, for vaccine skeptics) even if it means forcing the close quarters of a cruise ship to be riskier than they need to be.

“The Governor’s Executive Order provides that businesses in Florida are prohibited from requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business,” [DeSantis press secretary Cory] McCloud told Insider in an email. “Therefore, the Executive Order prohibits cruise lines from requiring vaccine passports for their Florida operations.”

However, many cruise lines have already announced some form of a vaccine requirement, whether it be for crew, guests, or both. This includes Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which recently unveiled a sweeping vaccine requirement for its Norwegian, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas brand. Other cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, have held off on guest or crew requirements, instead opting to announce select “fully vaccinated” sailings.

This dispute is probably destined for a courtroom. Legal experts told one local paper that cruise line corporations tend to be registered abroad, operating foreign-flagged ships in mostly international waters, and therefore it’s unclear if an executive order issued by a governor can legally bar them from setting certain admission requirements. One lawyer claims that, unless a cruise is operating entirely within Florida waters, DeSantis would lack authority under interstate, international, or maritime law to prohibit them from requesting proof of vaccination. (Even if passengers were boarding in Florida, though?) Yet another lawyer noted the irony of DeSantis pressuring the CDC to encourage cruise lines to resume operations and then opposing the most surefire precaution to prevent outbreaks onboard.

Law prof Debbie Kaminer made a shrewd point in an op-ed today about DeSantis’s full-spectrum opposition to vaccine passports in his state. Not only is it broader than Greg Abbott’s similar ban in Texas (Abbott prohibits private businesses from requiring passports only if they accept state funds), it amounts to a de facto amendment to Florida’s antidiscrimination laws.

Essentially, Florida’s executive order is turning unvaccinated people into a protected class under the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Just as state anti-discrimination laws protect customers from discrimination based on fundamental characteristics such as race, sex or religion, Florida now has added those who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine…

Regardless of where one stands on whether government should require individuals to have proof of the COVID-19 vaccine to access certain high-risk venues — and I do support some government mandates — it is troubling for a state to go a step further and actively take away a private business’ ability to protect itself from the worst pandemic in a century. It is also hypocritical for Republicans, in the name of freedom and personal choice, to take an anti-business position that destroys the freedom and personal choice of private businesses.

I’ve made the point before that righty populists’ hostility to vaccine passports is something of a reversal relative to their position on business owners being forced by states to cater gay weddings even if it violates their religious conscience. Bakers shouldn’t have to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple … but they should have to bake a cake for an unvaccinated person who insists on entering their shop, it seems. That analogy isn’t perfect, though: Whereas the religious shop owner objects for reasons of conscience, the shop owner who doesn’t want to serve unvaccinated people may object for sound, practical health reasons. Cruise lines are a perfect example. A company may not want to risk a crisis developing onboard via an outbreak among unvaccinated people that’ll throw the ship into chaos and force them to scale back services to vaccinated passengers who paid good money for luxury. And yet DeSantis’s rule would force them to.

Antidiscrimination laws are designed to protect people at risk of facing disparate treatment due to a proprietor’s prejudice against some fundamental element of their identity — race, faith, gender. Choosing whether or not to be immunized from COVID isn’t a fundamental element of one’s identity (or at least it shouldn’t be). There’s no valid, unprejudiced “health reason” for not wanting black people to congregate in your shop. There is a valid, unprejudiced reason for not wanting unvaccinated people to congregate, particularly if they’re going to be in your care far from dry land for weeks on end. So why is DeSantis ignoring it?

Like I say, a universal ban on vaccine passports makes more sense from him as a 2024 pander than as sound COVID policy. DeSantis wants to signal to GOP primary voters that he’s One Of Us, whatever that means for safety aboard cruise ships. Simple as that.