CDC says first passenger cruise from U.S. can proceed next month -- but will DeSantis block it?

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The answer to the question in the headline appears to be “no” but only because the cruise is set to depart shortly before DeSantis’s executive order governing vaccine passports takes effect on July 1. That order purports to ban nearly all entities in Florida, public or private, from demanding proof of vaccination as a condition of receiving services. If they insist on requiring proof, they face a fine of $5,000 — per violation.

Which leaves us in a strange position. The CDC, the most notoriously hypercautious government agency of the pandemic, is telling cruise lines to reopen for business. And Ron DeSantis, the governor who moved more aggressively than any other in opening his state up, is threatening to disrupt that reopening by warning cruise lines of draconian fines if they limit access to vaccinated people.

I wrote about DeSantis’s odd posture on this issue last month. Six weeks later, I still can’t see any valid reason for him to be fighting with cruise lines or the CDC over this. It’s a pure pander to the anti-vaxxer element of the GOP base ahead of 2024.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday gave Royal Caribbean Group approval to start seven-night cruises to the Caribbean on its Celebrity Cruises brand ship, Celebrity Edge, on June 26, according to an agency spokesperson. The ship is the first to win Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approval for revenue cruises since the COVID-19 pandemic began…

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all cruise passengers be vaccinated, but doesn’t require it. The agency has given cruise companies two options: meet vaccination thresholds of 98 percent of crew and 95 percent of passengers on the ship and start revenue cruises immediately, or forego the thresholds and first perform test cruises to ensure COVID protocols are working. Cruise ships that meet the threshold will have more relaxed mask and social distancing rules…

“We’ve been very clear, the law is clear in Florida,” said Taryn Fenske, spokesperson for the governor. “You can’t mandate vaccine passports. We are interested to see how the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) works with them so that they don’t get these exorbitant fines.”

Celebrity Edge is requiring all passengers 16 and over to be vaccinated for the cruise on June 26. As for the law in Florida, it’s true that it’s clear. Whether it applies to cruise ships that dock there but which are registered abroad and foreign-flagged is less clear and may be decided in court. DeSantis is so committed to fighting vaccine passports, though, that he sued the CDC over its guidance for ship cruises last month and is headed to mediation with the agency to try to force them to drop all restrictions. His office has told the media that requiring proof of vaccination is a violation of Floridians’ “medical privacy” and “two unequal classes of citizens based on vaccination status.”

But it’s nonsense. It’s not a violation of your privacy if a business whose services you’re hoping to retain asks whether you’ve been vaccinated as part of the contract. If you don’t want to supply that information, you don’t have to. Just walk away. It’s the same sort of idiocy that has people running around insisting that it’s a violation of “HIPPA” (a.k.a. HIPAA) for a business to ask if you’ve had your shots. HIPAA only comes into play with respect to medical records; a doctor or hospital in possession of those records can’t reveal the information in them without your consent. That’s not an issue if Royal Caribbean asks you if you’ve been vaccinated, as it’s entirely up to you whether to share that information or not. If you don’t want to, don’t sail with them.

It’s also nonsense for DeSantis and his team to be dressing up this issue in the language of discrimination (“two unequal classes of citizens”), a concept that typically applies only to core characteristics of personal identity like race, sex, and religion. The first time I wrote about this, I noticed that DeSantis was essentially creating a conservative version of the standoff over whether Christian business owners should be forced to cater gay weddings that violate their religious convictions. Florida’s rule turns the tables, demanding that cruise lines “bake the cake” for unvaccinated passengers — even though, unlike gay weddings, those passengers pose a potential health risk. It’s not a clash of values in this case, it’s a matter of containing a contagious disease. Jonathan Chait made the same point today:

And keep in mind, nobody is even contemplating requiring anybody to take a vaccine. The question is whether you can refuse the vaccine and still walk into any room you wish, whether or not the owner of that room and the other people there want you. DeSantis believes your right to breathe infected germs on other people trumps every other right at issue.

Suppose you owned a bakery. And instead of refusing to sell a couple a cake because it’s for a gay wedding, you refuse to sell them a cake because they are potentially carrying a deadly virus into your shop that may infect or kill you, your fellow employees, or your customers. Conservatives say the state can force you to make that transaction anyway. Objecting to their homosexuality is a legitimate basis for excluding them, but objecting to their potential transmission of a deadly virus is not.

But wait. Now that we’ve reached the point of the pandemic where basically any adult who wants a vaccine can get one immediately, what’s the logic for excluding the unvaccinated from cruises? Everyone on board who’s vaccinated will be protected. Presumably the crew and all other staff will be too. It’ll only be unvaxxed passengers who are at risk from each other.

Which is fine in an American city, so long as there aren’t so many unvaccinated people getting severely ill that hospitals begin filling up again. (Which seems unlikely at this stage.) But when we’re talking about a cruise ship that’s many miles offshore, quartering people in cramped spaces where outbreaks are prone to happen, an eruption of illness among the unvaccinated could create a crisis for the crew. Imagine 3,000 passengers, half of whom are vaccinated, half not. Then imagine an outbreak that spreads to half the unvaccinated passengers. Of those 750 people, 10 percent fall seriously ill. Is the crew capable of caring for 75 people who are meaningfully sick from COVID? How soon can it reach a port if hospital care is needed?

Why should a cruise line, a private entity, be forced to risk a scenario like that just because Ron DeSantis wants to flirt with the vax skeptics who’ll be voting in the 2024 GOP primary?

This is the second time in a week that he’s made a dubious pander to Republican voters. The other was signing Florida’s new law prohibiting social media sites from blocking political candidates unless the owner of the site also happens to operate a theme park in Florida, which was a cute way for DeSantis and the bill’s sponsors to show just how unserious they are about it. A special carve-out for their friends at Disney means that even they realize the law is going to be laughed out of court on First Amendment grounds once it’s challenged. But targeting tech at least touches on a serious problem, the capacity of social media sites to exclude someone from a key arena of public debate if they collude to do so. Targeting cruise lines for wanting to take strong measures to avoid outbreaks once they’re back in business is just grandstanding to anti-vaxxers.