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Cruise lines and Florida Gov. DeSantis square off over vaccine passports

Cruise lines are eager to set sail, but a new law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis banning so-called vaccine passports may keep them anchored.
Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Sea cruise ship is docked at the Port of Miami on March 02, 2021.
Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Sea cruise ship at PortMiami on March 2.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is on a collision course with one of the state's biggest industries over a law he signed banning businesses from asking customers whether they've been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Cruise ship operators, who sail out of Florida's large southern ports, say the order will make it make it harder for them to safely return to the seas, possibly imperiling a major economic driver in the state.

The GOP, under the influence of former President Donald Trump, has pursued cultural fights that roil its base at the expense of traditional conservative values, like free-market capitalism, with DeSantis, who is considering a presidential bid in 2024, and others picking fights with companies that they say undermine American values.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the go-ahead Wednesday to begin work toward restarting cruises for the first time in over a year after the massive ships became some of the first superspreader locations for the coronavirus.

With populations the size of small cities packed into close quarters, cruise ships are uniquely vulnerable to viral spread. So to comply with CDC guidance and keep passengers and crew members safe, several cruise liners want to require nearly everyone onboard to be fully vaccinated.

But that could now be illegal in Florida, the center of the American cruise industry, under a law DeSantis signed this month that prohibits businesses from discriminating against unvaccinated customers.

"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 of the law, which codified executive orders he had already issued.

Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to reporters about the cruise industry at a news conference at PortMiami on April 8.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The law is the last thing the cruise industry needs, said travel industry analyst Patrick Scholes, managing director of Truist Securities, as they try to reassure passengers that it's safe to return to their all-you-can-eat buffets after 15 months.

"It has been a year of migraines and kicks in the teeth for the cruise industry. Now, they're finally getting ready to restart, and you have the governor of Florida basically playing a game of chicken with them," Scholes said.

The dispute may end up in court, as the cruise industry argues that the state law doesn't apply to it thanks to federal rules. In the meantime, companies may decide to move ahead with plans to require vaccinations, even if it means racking up violations in Florida.

"It might even be cheaper for them to just eat the fines," Scholes said. "They are burning millions of dollars a day having their ships idle."

Florida, which is by far the biggest embarkation point for cruises in the U.S., is home to the headquarters and key infrastructure of several major cruise lines, including Norwegian, whose CEO said the Miami-based company might have to pull its ships out of the state because of the vaccine passport prohibitions.

"We hope that this doesn't become a legal football or a political football. 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, then there are other states that we do operate from. And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would have gone to Florida," CEO Frank Del Rio said on a recent earnings call with investors and analysts.

"We certainly hope it doesn't come to that. Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It's a very lucrative market," Del Rio said. "But it is an issue. Can't ignore it. And we hope that everyone is pushing in the same direction, which is we want to resume cruising in a safe manner."

Another, unnamed, cruise industry executive warned the industry newsletter Cruise Week that if the Florida law stands, "it would appear to block cruises from restarting."

"Why is a pro-business governor standing in the way of one of the most important industries in the state from restarting?" the executive asked.

DeSantis, who is seen as a leading presidential contender if Trump doesn't run, has been at the forefront of the GOP's turn away from a business-focused message.

He recently signed a law cracking down on social media companies, a direct response from Trump allies to websites that opted to remove him from their platforms. But in another instance, he sided with the cruise industry and stripped power from local jurisdictions after residents of Key West overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to limit the size of cruise ships visiting the island, where the cruise dock is owned by a major DeSantis donor.

DeSantis, who says he has been fighting for the cruise industry all along, sued the CDC over masking and social distancing guidelines that he said were too strict. Now that he is at odds with the industry over so-called vaccine passports, he says he isn't budging.

"We are going to enforce Florida law," DeSantis told reporters Friday, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "I mean, we have Florida law. We have laws that protect the people and the privacy of our citizens, and we are going to enforce it."

Covid-19 vaccines have become politicized. Republicans are by far the largest segment of Americans who say they will "definitely not" get inoculated, according to a poll from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. More than a quarter of GOP voters, 27 percent, say they will refuse the shots, while 9 percent more said they would get the shots only if it's required.

Other Florida politicians see things differently, and even some Republicans say it's not worth challenging the recovery of the state's crucial tourism industry after it was hammered by the pandemic.

"We are ready to welcome back passengers to the Cruise Capital of the World and put tens of thousands of cruise employees back to work," said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat. "We're committed to working with the governor to find a way forward."