Cruise line may wave goodbye to Florida over DeSantis order banning COVID vaccination passports

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The travel industry is trying its best to get back to more normal times as summer months are on the horizon. One sector of the industry was particularly hard hit – cruise lines. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is doing all he can in his official capacity to reopen Florida’s ports for cruise lines and bringing back their customers to the state. DeSantis went so far as to sign an executive order last month that bans the use of COVID-19 vaccination passports in Florida. One cruise line is voicing its opposition to that order.

Norweigan Cruise Line says, Not so fast, Governor DeSantis. The company wants vaccination passports to be a requirement for cruising. CEO Frank Del Rio says the company may pull out of Florida over this issue. No vaccination passports, no cruise ship departures from Florida ports. A CBS affiliate in Miami reports that during the company’s earnings call that Del Rio said he will have no choice but to make the decision to take its ships out of Florida.

On Monday DeSantis signed into law a ban on COVID passports and issued a statement.

“In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,” DeSantis said in a statement, at the time.

The governor is putting personal freedom over government mandates which is not an unusual stance for a conservative to take. However, Del Rio finds himself in a tough spot. He is trying to satisfy CDC mandates while trying to win back the confidence of his customers. It turns out that more than half of Americans support COVID vaccination passports to travel by airplane and to attend events with large crowds, according to a Gallup survey. This likely holds true for cruise ships, an environment with thousands of people inhabiting a large ship out in a body of water. Cruise ships are known for outbreaks of illnesses among passengers. Many potential cruisers will likely want the reassurances that fellow passengers are fully vaccinated.

Specifically, U.S. adults favor mandated vaccination certification for travel by airplane (57%) and to attend events with large crowds, such as concerts or sporting events (55%). However, there is less public support for proving vaccination to go to one’s workplace (45%), stay in a hotel (44%) or dine indoors at a restaurant (40%), with majorities opposing it in each instance.

As with everything else these days, the desire for COVID vaccination passports falls along political party lines.

Republicans and Democrats have opposing views on requiring proof of vaccination in various settings, consistent with Republicans’ subdued concern about the coronavirus and their lesser willingness to get vaccinated. No more than 28% of Republicans support requiring people to provide proof of vaccination to participate in any of the five activities. At the same time, majorities of Democrats ranging from 62% to 85% favor mandatory vaccine certification to take part in all five.

Del Rio says his ships have the ability to move out of Florida and they just may do so. He doesn’t want to do that, though.

Del Rio continued during the call by saying, “At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from. And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would’ve gone to Florida. We certainly hope that doesn’t come to that. Everyone wants to operate out of Florida, it’s a very lucrative market, it’s close drive market.”

The irony of this kerfuffle between DeSantis and Del Rio is that Del Rio has been fighting the CDC for months now to try to expedite the reopening of the cruise line industry. The CDC is in support of mandates for travels to show proof of COVID vaccinations, for example. Before a ship can sail, the CDC says 98% of crew members must be vaccinated and 95% of passengers must be vaccinated. Now Del Rio hopes that the CDC mandate will override the governor’s action. The legal question of if the federal agency’s mandate overrides a state governor’s executive action has yet to be decided. Del Rio’s company submitted a proposal to the CDC on how cruise ships can reopen safely.

“If the CDC wants to go in a different direction, the rest of the industry wants to go – great, we want to go 100%. We want clearance for 100%. And as of today, which is a little over a month since we submitted our proposal to the CDC, we’ve not yet heard back from them. And that is very disappointing,” he added.

The CDC is moving through a phased approach to a return to operation for cruise lines, with a number of implemented protocols to follow. The CDC will begin its return to sailing by having the cruise lines perform simulated voyages, which are slated to begin this summer.

It seems to me to be a bad idea for a governor, especially a conservative governor, to put into law a restriction on private businesses and their approach to a public health issue. In this case, a private business is trying to assure customers that a closed environment is safe. Obviously, no one wants to be required to produce proof of vaccination to enter a shop or other retail establishment. If a customer isn’t vaccinated or doesn’t want the hassle, there are other places to shop. A cruise ship, though, is ripe for spreading viruses, even in non-pandemic times, and it is not so unreasonable to require its passengers to show proof of vaccinations. There has to be a way to thread this needle. Personal privacy issues and federal mandates should not be allowed to create two classes of people – vaccinated versus non-vaccinated – and divide communities.

If Del Rio and DeSantis don’t reach some kind of agreement, jobs will be lost, which is something both men were trying to avoid. At least, in the beginning, Del Rio plans to stick with guaranteeing 100% of passengers and crew are vaccinated.