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Florida's ban on vaccination proof requirements complicates U.S. cruise line comeback

Some cruise lines are weaving a path that accommodates Florida's law and CDC sailing requirements. Others are not.
Image: Royal Caribbean Conducts Test Cruise Of It's Freedom of the Seas Ship, As Cruise Industry Prepares To Restart
The Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas (left) prepares to set sail from PortMiami during the first U.S. trial cruise testing Covid-19 protocols on June 20, 2021 in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

When cruise ships depart from Florida’s ports in the coming months, some won’t require passengers to get the most effective pandemic life preserver there is — a Covid-19 vaccination.

That’s because of new legislation Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed that bars businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccinations. The law goes into effect Thursday and opponents say it could threaten the recovery of an industry that is vital to the state’s economy, in addition to making it difficult for cruise ship companies to put some teeth into the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination recommendations.

At least 10 major cruise lines are headquartered in Florida, including Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and Disney Cruise Line.

Celebrity Cruises dropped its requirement that Florida passengers show proof of their shots. Royal Caribbean requires proof at certain ports, but none in Florida, and this week introduced a requirement complicating trips for the unvaccinated: those passengers must show proof of travel insurance.

Despite the law, two of the biggest cruise lines, Carnival and Norwegian have decided to impose proof-of-vaccination requirements, according to information published on their websites. Violations of the Florida law come with a maximum $5,000 penalty per violation.

“No corporation is above the law,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email. “A couple of the biggest cruise lines have revised their policies, and we expect others to follow their example.”

When asked how Carnival intends to handle Florida’s new law, a spokesperson did not comment on the decision to break from the law and instead referred NBC News to its frequently-asked-questions page, which states that “guests will be asked to confirm their status as fully vaccinated for Covid-19 and provide proof of vaccination in advance of boarding,” unless a vaccination exemption is given in advance.

Norwegian, which requires guests to bring proof of vaccination, responded to inquiries with a link to its latest press release from early June about its upcoming U.S. voyages.

Democrats have denounced the new law and accused DeSantis of undermining both public health and the cruise industry.

"The governor is dictatorially imposing his will on Florida businesses trying to protect their customers, including cruise lines on whom our agriculture industry depends for millions in food sales," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement to NBC News.

Fried, a Democrat, is running to unseat DeSantis in next year’s election.

Pushaw said the governor’s executive order is not likely to scare away seagoing travelers.

“It’s almost unheard of for a vaccinated person to get seriously ill with Covid-19,” she said in an email. “Therefore, people who are vaccinated should not be worried about getting infected from those who aren’t.”

When DeSantis signed legislation banning what he called “vaccine passports” in May, he said, “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.”

Bari Golin-Blaugrund, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group, called Florida “the heart and soul of the cruise world.”

“Prior to the pandemic, the industry directly and indirectly supported nearly 160,000 jobs in Florida.”

In 2019, 8.3 million of the 13.8 million people who boarded a cruise ship in the United States did so in Florida, Golin-Blaugrund added.

But Florida is not the only port of call for the cruise ship industry, and an NBC News survey of 17 lines serving the U.S. found that four are not following CDC recommendations that all eligible crew and passengers get vaccinated: the U.S.-based American Cruise Lines, the Italian-based Costa Cruises, and the Switzerland-based MSC Cruises and Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.

American operates smaller ships for fewer than 250 passengers and is not subject to the same cruise-line regulations as the large operators.

“The rapid progress of vaccinations in the U.S. is very positive as we look toward the resumption of cruises,” MSC President Rubén Rodríguez said.

MSC has operated in Europe since last summer with tens of thousands of guests, both vaccinated and not, he said.

“MSC Cruises is a very inclusive family brand, and we want to welcome all guests, including kids and any adults who have not been vaccinated for medical or other reasons,” Rodríguez said.

Another company, Holland America Line, requires that passengers get vaccinated before coming aboard, but also stated the requirement is “subject to change.” Royal Caribbean International requires vaccinations for passengers, but only if they are departing from these four ports: Seattle; Galveston, Texas; Nassau, the Bahamas; and Limassol, Cyprus.

While Golin-Blaugrund said her industry is “overwhelmingly supportive of the vaccine,” she added that since children under 12 don’t have access to Covid-19 vaccines, “100 percent vaccination is just not an option for families.”

The CDC has provided two ways of getting cruise ships certified to sail again given these limitations: reach the threshold of 95 percent vaccination for passengers and 95 percent for crew members, or have cruise ships test their protocols ahead of trips.

“This pathway requires simulated voyages, or test sailings, with volunteer passengers before these ships can obtain the conditional sailing certificate needed to resume commercial operations from U.S. ports,” Golin-Blaugrund said.

Still, even as those test cruises resumed last month in American waters, there already have been reports of Covid-19 outbreaks on ships not regulated by the CDC.

Two passengers aboard the Celebrity Millennium, which sailed out of St. Maarten in the Caribbean on June 5, and was supposed to be a “fully vaccinated” ship, tested positive for Covid-19. It is operated by Celebrity, which is a Royal Caribbean subsidiary.

Royal Caribbean also delayed the inaugural sailing of its Odyssey of the Seas cruise ship after eight crew members tested positive last month for Covid-19.

Disney delayed a test sailing this week after inconsistent Covid-19 test results. Also this week, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line pushed back its restart after an onboard crew member tested positive for Covid-19.