Will cruise lines with vaccine mandates be blocked from sailing from Florida?

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Did Ron DeSantis just muck up the cruise industry’s plan to restart cruises from Florida?

During a press conference on Thursday, the Florida governor suggested the state might fight efforts to impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates on cruise passengers — something that is at the core of comeback plans at a growing number of cruise lines.

“We would object to it,” DeSantis said in response to a question from a reporter about such mandates. “What if you have a reason for why you didn’t get vaccinated? You then can’t participate in society like everybody else? These (cruise ships) are basically public accommodations, and to have different classes of citizens based on vaccine status, I think is a big, big mistake.”

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DeSantis’s comments came just a week after he signed an executive order banning businesses in Florida from requiring customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The executive order and DeSantis’s latest comments have raised the specter that some cruise lines might be unable to restart sailings from Florida in the coming months even if they get the go-ahead from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC currently is blocking cruise lines from sailing in U.S. waters, citing the coronavirus pandemic. But in recent days, it has said cruising might be able to resume by mid-summer.

Could Florida really stop cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination to sail?

As cut-and-dry as DeSantis’s comments seem, it’s not clear that Florida has the authority to block cruise lines from imposing vaccine mandates. And even if the state does have such authority, many industry watchers think it’s unlikely that DeSantis will stop cruise lines with such mandates from sailing.

“I see it as a nonissue,” Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, told TPG. “It would be extremely unlikely that the state of Florida would sue to keep the cruise companies from operating in any way, fashion or form.”

Driscoll said DeSantis “understands the economic implications for his state would be negative for all the stakeholders — ports, travel sellers, etc. — that are vital to the tourism interests. The goal of DeSantis, as it has been since summer 2020, has been to have an open economy in Florida.”

Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that all passengers will need a COVID-19 vaccine to sail when cruising resumes later this year. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

Many in the cruise industry believe the executive order that DeSantis signed on April 2 would not legally apply to internationally-based companies such as cruise companies, Driscoll noted. But there is debate on the issue among industry observers.

“Strictly speaking, I think the answer (on whether the executive order applies to cruise lines) is yes because the ships call in ports leaving from Florida and thus are subject to the order,” Michael Winkleman, a maritime attorney from Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman told TPG.

Still, “practically speaking, I don’t think Gov. DeSantis intends for the order to apply to the cruise lines.” Winkleman added.

Winkleman said cruise lines have a right to require passengers and crew to be fully vaccinated, and he suggested that they may have little choice but to require the vaccines.

“I don’t see how there can be safe cruising without a fully vaccinated ship,” Winkleman said. “From a legal standpoint, I think the cruise lines expose themselves to liability if they were to sail without requiring crew and passengers to be vaccinated.”

Winkleman cited “obvious, significant risks” to cruising on a ship without a vaccine requirement. But many cruise lines in recent months have said they can sail safely in this new age of COVID-19 even without a mandatory vaccine requirement.

Still, more than a dozen cruise lines, including such well-known brands as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Silversea and Viking, have announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all or at least some upcoming sailings.

Are cruise lines “Florida businesses”?

Whether or not these cruise lines will be allowed to impose such a vaccine mandate on passengers sailing out of Florida ports may come down to whether or not the ships are considered Florida businesses. The typical cruise ship sailing out of a Florida port spends just a few hours each week in the state to drop off and pick up passengers but otherwise is operating an international itinerary that involves sailing in international waters and visiting foreign ports such as Nassau in the Bahamas and Cozumel, Mexico.

In a conference call with TPG and several other cruise outlets last week, Harry Sommer, the president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said the company was unsure how the DeSantis order would affect its future sailings out of Florida.

Norwegian and its two sister brands, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, announced last week that they would require all passengers on all sailings to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine when cruising resumes. The policy will remain in place through at least Oct. 31.

“It’s unclear to us how (the DeSantis order) would apply to international travel (and, if it did) whether he would carve out an exception (for cruise lines). I’m not in a position to say because I simply don’t know,” Sommer said in response to a question from TPG during the conference call. “But the governor and our interests are aligned in that restarting up cruising in Florida … would be a boost to the Florida economy. I’m confident that we can work together to find a solution.”

DeSantis’s executive order says that it applies to “businesses in Florida” but is vague on what constitutes a Florida business.

It says, specifically, that Florida businesses are forbidden 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.”

Some cruise industry leaders in recent days have expressed concern that DeSantis’s efforts to block vaccine mandates could have the unintended consequence of slowing down the comeback of cruising in Florida.

“The industry’s commitment to requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated along with universal testing and multi-layered health and safety protocols is consistent with the CDC’s updated travel guidance and are what we hope will result in reopening U.S. ports by mid-July,” David Harris, CEO of Ensemble Travel Group, said Monday when asked by TPG for a comment on DeSantis’s executive order. “Any actions that could delay this will not only disappoint travelers who are ready to go but will have a tremendous negative impact on the 160,000 people in Florida who work in the cruise industry and the thousands of others who are ready to get back to work.”

Ensemble Travel Group is a consortium of more than 600 top-tier travel agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada that sells a large number of cruises.

Some travel agents who sell cruises have expressed profound anger at the executive order.

“The Florida prohibition on businesses requiring customers to provide documentation of COVID-19 vaccination is blatant governmental interference with businesses being able to operate safely and in accordance with science,” said Eric Goldring of Truckee, Calif.-based Goldring Travel. “On the one hand, he states the CDC is preventing the cruise industry from operating, but then – based solely on politics and contrary to science – insists the cruise lines be prohibited from complying with the current CDC guidelines for socialization.”

DeSantis’s comments on Thursday about vaccine mandates came as he announced that Florida was suing the federal government and the CDC to allow cruises to resume in U.S. waters.

The lawsuit comes as Florida politicians and Florida-based cruise lines have become increasingly frustrated with the CDC for not allowing at least limited cruising to restart out of the state. Florida accounts for more than half of all cruise ship embarkations in the U.S.

Cruising around the world ground to a halt in March 2020 after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic and many countries went into nationwide lockdowns. But since last summer,  a number of countries, including Italy, Greece, Germany, Norway, Taiwan and Singapore, have allowed at least some cruise vessels to resume operations as they relaxed national lockdowns and travel restrictions.

In the U.S., by contrast, federal officials have blocked all cruising for the past 13 months, with the exception of a handful of sailings on very small river vessels on the Mississippi River and small ships that sail on intracoastal waterways.

In addition to banning Florida businesses from requiring customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, the executive order that DeSantis signed on April 2 forbids Florida government agencies from issuing so-called vaccine, or digital health, passports.

Bottom line

While many cruise lines have indicated that vaccines will be mandatory to sail, they’ve said little publicly about using vaccine passports on ships.

To be clear, requiring proof of vaccination is not the same as requiring the use of a vaccine passport. Digital health or vaccine passports are expected to be optional and will likely be leveraged in the travel industry and other large gatherings. However, proof of vaccination could be as simple as showing the CDC card given to people after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Certain destinations, tour operators and travel providers may require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or accept proof of vaccination as an alternative to strict testing and quarantine requirements. Streamlining those processes is something the travel industry has been working on in the form of digital vaccine passports, which will host verified test and vaccine information.

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Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean 

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