DeSantis wins: Royal Caribbean won't require proof of vaccination to sail from Florida after all

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Verrrry curious, since at last check it was DeSantis who was on the brink of caving. That’s because the law appears to be on the side of the cruise lines in this matter, with state governments enjoying little authority to regulate international carriers. Hearing that Royal Caribbean had surrendered to DeSantis’s ban on vaccine passports and would no longer require passengers to be immunized before boarding, one maritime lawyer was shocked. “I was surprised by the blink because I think they’re on the better side of it and I think they’re better off staying on Team CDC rather than Team DeSantis,” said Michael Winkleman to CNN. “In my opinion, this has nothing to with helping business, it has nothing to do with keeping people safe… It has to do with [DeSantis] playing to a very small but vocal base of his supporters in an effort to win in 2024.”

If the cruise lines were likely to win in court, there must be some other explanation for why they capitulated. More on that in a second.

Royal Caribbean’s CEO issued a statement announcing the new policy on Friday:

Travelers can plan their cruise adventure with peace of mind knowing that all crew members will be vaccinated against COVID-19. Guests are strongly recommended to set sail fully vaccinated, if they are eligible. Those who are unvaccinated or unable to verify vaccination will be required to undergo testing and follow other protocols, which will be announced at a later date. Other measures in place for travelers to cruise with Royal Caribbean include:

* Vacationers sailing to Alaska who are 16 years of age or older must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and those 12 or older as of Aug. 1.

* If departing from an international port, guests must meet the travel requirements of their home country and the country of departure. The most up-to-date policies can be found online on each country’s tourism site.

He even thanked DeSantis (and other officials) in his statement for helping to make vaccines readily available. Hmmmm.

I can imagine why the cruise lines might have backed down even if they were likely to prevail on the law. For one thing, it might have taken months to win the suit, during which time they’d be in jeopardy if they chose to operate. DeSantis’s executive order imposed a fine of $5,000 per violation for Florida businesses demanding proof of vaccination; Royal Caribbean would have been looking at fines in the millions for every cruise if they lost on the law. Meanwhile, DeSantis showed every intention of continuing to battle them on the vaccine-passport requirement, with an attempt to resolve the dispute via mediation having failed last week. Facing the prospect of setting sail in legal limbo, Royal Caribbean apparently decided it had more to gain by allowing some unvaxxed passengers onboard than to keep plowing money into lawyers’ fees and, potentially, state fines.

But there may be a business rationale too. “As of today, 90% of all vacationers booking with Royal Caribbean are either vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated in time for their cruise,” said the company’s CEO in Friday’s statement. Sounds like RC surveyed consumers before arriving at their decision and felt assured that, as we’ve seen with masks during the pandemic, just because there’s no mandate in place doesn’t mean people won’t take precautions on their own initiative. Presumably their data also showed that most vaccinated people are willing to buy a ticket even if they know that not everyone aboard is vaccinated as well — a surprising result since a a recent poll of cruise enthusiasts found that 80 percent wanted cruise lines to make vaccinations mandatory. And even if some vaxxed consumers decide to stay away because of the new policy, there may be enough demand among the unvaccinated out there to set sail to replace their lost business.

With possibly nine out of every 10 passengers vaccinated, Royal Caribbean may be calculating that there’ll be enough herd immunity on the ship to prevent major outbreaks among unvaccinated passengers even if there are destined to be a few infections. Although obviously that calculus will change if vaccinated consumers decide they don’t want to sail with the unvaccinated for whatever reason (e.g., a cruise might be diverted or cut short if there’s an outbreak on board), resulting in a consumer base with less immunity from infection. Considering how the unvaccinated have been more willing to take risks with COVID than the vaccinated have, RC may end up with more unvaxxed passengers than they’re expecting.

And if they do, and there’s a major outbreak, that could kill demand for cruises for months to come. I’m curious to know what sort of “protocols” they’re expecting the unvaccinated to follow for safety reasons, to prevent that outcome. Presumably masks are involved. Will they be barred from certain higher-risk parts of the ship too?

Another question: Although Royal Caribbean is no longer requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of coming aboard, they are requiring passengers to tell them whether they’ve been vaccinated or not so that they know who needs to follow the extra safety protocols and who doesn’t. DeSantis has frequently justified his ban on vaccine passports as a way to protect the medical privacy of Floridians, but RC’s policy defeats that; you’ll still need to share your vaccination status with the company. In other words, although Royal Caribbean isn’t requiring proof of vaccination in order to sail, it is requiring proof of vaccination status. Is DeSantis okay with that?

And is Greg Abbott okay with that? As of today he’s following the same policy as DeSantis:

As for other cruise lines, it’s unclear right now if they’re willing to fight DeSantis beyond the point that RC did. Norwegian Cruise Lines will set sail from Florida on August 13 and at the moment they’re still requiring all passengers and crew to be vaccinated. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an idea that a Twitter pal suggested: What about different fares for vaccinated and unvaccinated people? The cruise line could justify that in terms of the extra risk it will incur of a serious medical crisis developing onboard if there’s an outbreak among the unvaccinated. If they charge the unvaxxed, say, twice as much as they charge vaccinated people, that would help deter the unvaccinated from buying tickets and possibly encourage more business among the vaxxed. Which means a safer cruise.