Norwegian Cruise Line could pull ships from Florida if rule on vaccine mandates sticks

May 6, 2021

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The world’s third largest cruise company is prepared to pull its ships from Florida in the coming months if it has to comply with the state’s new law against vaccine mandates.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio on Thursday suggested the company’s three brands — Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — would move their Florida-based vessels to home ports in other states or even to non-U.S. ports in the Caribbean if they were forced to comply with the new rule.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has announced all its ships would resume operations this year with a requirement that all passengers and crew be vaccinated for COVID-19 — a mandate that is not allowed under the Florida law.

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“We hope that this doesn’t become a legal football or a political football,” Del Rio told Wall Street analysts during a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings. “But, at the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can’t operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, there are other states where we do operate from. [Or] we can operate from the Caribbean … we certainly hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed the new Florida law banning vaccine mandates, and he and and his office staff have suggested it applies to cruise ships based in the state.

“We would object to it,” DeSantis said at a press event last month in response to a question from a reporter about vaccine mandates for cruise ships. “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.”

Related: CDC may require masks on cruise ships even by the pool

Still, the issue of whether the Florida law — it initially was issued as an executive order and just recently made a law through legislative action — will apply to cruise ships that depart Florida ports for trips into international waters is a matter of legal debate.

Del Rio noted that some lawyers think federal rules that govern cruise ship operations out of U.S. ports would trump a state law related to vaccine mandates.

“It’s a classic state vs. federal government issue,” Del Rio said on the call when asked about the issue by a Wall Street analyst. “Legally, lawyers believe the federal law applies and not state law.”

Still, Del Rio noted his lack of expertise in the area. “I’m not a lawyer,” he said.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has said all of its ships will operate with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate through at least Oct. 31.

All passengers, even children, will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and show proof to that effect before being allowed on the company’s ships, with no exceptions.

Del Rio on Thursday said the policy is the key to bringing back cruising in the safest possible way.

“Especially at the beginning,” he said. “Things might be different six months from now or a year from now. But today with the pandemic still being front-and-center in everybody’s mind, and we’re just getting out of the worst part of it [which happened just] weeks ago, I think everyone should be wanting to start cruising in the safest possible manner, and that’s exactly what the Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings plan does.”

In addition to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings brands plan to restart operations in the coming months with a long list of other new health and safety measures including new social distancing rules and reduced capacity on ships.

Other lines that have announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all passengers including children on at least some initial sailings include Azamara, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea, UnCruise Adventures and Viking.

Related: Will I need a COVID-19 vaccine to cruise? A line-by-line guide

More COVID-19 vaccine mandates from cruise lines could be coming. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently is urging cruise lines to restart operations out of U.S. ports with a rule that at least 98% of crew and 95% of passengers be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Cruise lines that agree to such a vaccine mandate will be fast-tracked by the CDC in winning approval to return to service.

Florida is home to three of the world’s largest cruise ports: PortMiami, Port Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. In a normal year, millions of vacationers depart on cruises through these and other Florida ports. The ships that they board take them everywhere from islands in the Bahamas and the Caribbean to South America and the Panama Canal.

During Thursday’s conference call, Del Rio noted that every cruise company’s first choice is to use the big Florida hubs as their bases for sailings to such destinations.

“Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It’s a very lucrative market. It’s a close-drive market,” he said. “But (the Florida law is) an issue. You can’t ignore it. We hope that everyone is pushing in the same direction, which is that we want to resume cruising in a safe manner.”

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Featured image of courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

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