Sailing News

DeSantis: Florida files lawsuit to get cruises sailing again

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that Florida has filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to end the drydocking of the cruise industry.

Cruise ships were prevented from leaving ports with passengers by a no-sail order issued by the CDC more than a year ago. That order was replaced on Nov. 1 with a “conditional sail order” that allows ships to sail after the CDC reviews and approves of a cruise line’s safety plan.

But that’s not fast enough, DeSantis during a briefing at PortMiami.

“Florida is fighting back,” the governor said, flanked by cruise line employees and state and local officials. “This is not reasonable. This is not rational.”

DeSantis insisted that the CDC’s shut-down order was still in place and that there is “no end in sight.” The CDC’s conditional sail order expires on Nov. 1. 

“There’s really just no end in sight because whatever they do next the cruise lines aren’t even going to sail under some ridiculous order, with having to do all these other things” said DeSantis, adding that the lawsuit demands the federal government open the cruise industry “immediately.” 

CDC No-Sail Order expired in November after seven month shut-down

The CDC shut down the industry in mid-March 2020 when it issued a no-sail order. The ban has been replaced with a “conditional sail order,” which requires cruise lines to detail their safety protocols and get permission from the CDC before re-opening.

Proof of vaccinations for crew and passengers is now a requirement included in most cruise lines’ safety plans. Mandatory vaccinations to board cruise ships also aligns with safety protocols recommended by the CDC and Federal Maritime Commission.

DeSantis said the CDC’s order was not preventing people from cruising, but instead only putting Florida and U.S. ports at a competitive disadvantage.

“But guess what? People are still going to go on cruises but instead of flying into Miami — spending money to stay in our hotels and spending money to eat in our restaurants before getting on the ship — they are going to fly to the Bahamas and get on the ship in the Bahamas,” DeSantis said. “And they are going to spend their money in the Bahamas. How does that make any sense? It’s irrational.”

Cruise lines need CDC approval of safety plans to sail

On Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line asked the CDC to approve its safety plans but added it would resume cruising in July — just not from U.S. ports, Instead, NCL’s Caribbean cruises will depart from ports in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. 

The CEO of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines at the Port of Palm Beach said he was unsure how the lawsuit would fare in court but praised DeSantis for bringing attention to the plight of the industry. 

“We do really appreciate the governor simply because it has brought the issue to the forefront and he is championing for the industry,” said O’Neil Khosa, head of Bahamas Paradise. “Anything that helps us highlight our cause because shutting down a business and shutting down an industry is not a solution.”

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines operated a two-day cruise to Grand Bahama Island. Its purchasing at the port is “north of $70 million” annually and the company employs about 200 workers, most who have been furloughed, Khosa said.

“Imagine the multiplying effect that has been absent for a year now,” added Khosa 

After the CDC lifted the no-sail order last fall, Bahamas Paradise submitted a safety plan to the CDC. When the CDC approved it, the plan did not contain a mandate that passengers prove they had been vaccinated.

Khosa said the company has not decided whether to implement a vaccination requirement for passengers. For now, he does not envision the DeSantis executive order issued last week prohibiting businesses from requiring “vaccination passports” to be a problem.

Both DeSantis and others, including U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, cited the proliferation of vaccines as a game changer that should let ships sail. Gimenez, the former Miami-Dade County mayor, said the CDC position doesn’t take into effect the effectiveness and proliferation of vaccines.

But that assertion appears undermined by the executive order issued by DeSantis on April 2 preventing cruise lines and other industries from requiring vaccine documentation in conducting business.

More: DeSantis’ vaccine passport ban confounds cruise lines’ reopening plans

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card at Operation Warp Speed headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2020. The cards will be sent out as part of vaccination kits from Operation Warp Speed.

DeSantis’ order banning businesses from requiring “vaccination passports” — documents that prove a person has been vaccinated — effectively bars cruise lines operating in Florida from using government-issued vaccine cards as proof.

At the press conference on Thursday, DeSantis did not mention the impact his executive order has on the industry’s efforts to reopen. He held firm that the order would remain in place. Instead blamed the federal government and CDC, repeatedly insisting that the CDC’s shut-down order was still in effect.

“We don’t believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data,” said DeSantis.

As for his executive order, DeSantis said it’s up to American consumers to make their own decisions.

“We’re not doing vaccine passports,” he said emphatically. “I trust people will make good decisions for themselves.”

The governor also said called Florida the “800-pound gorilla” in tourism, adding that whatever action Florida took would be followed by other states. 

DeSantis has prided himself on his anti-lockdown stance, especially getting Florida’s tourism industry up and running. His vaccination-passport ban came as a surprise to some, who thought it would help hospitality businesses open to full capacity. To others, the executive order jibes with DeSantis’ opposition to government interference in peoples’ lives and privacy

“Requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life – such as attending a sporting event, patronizing a restaurant, or going to a movie theater — would create two classes of citizens based on vaccination,” according to the executive order.

Related: Cruise industry bailout? Maybe, say Florida leaders, but with hefty conditions

However, some cruise companies had said that vaccine documentation would be part of their plans to return to the high seas.

As part of NCL’s plan to resume cruising in July, a company spokesman confirmed on Monday that passengers would have to prove they had been vaccinated and could use the government-issues vaccine cards as proof. 

”We believe that through a combination of 100% mandatory vaccinations for guests and crew and science-backed public health measures as developed by the Healthy Sail Pane l… we can create a safe, ‘bubble-like’ environment for guests and crew,”  wrote Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in a letter to the CDC on Monday. 

However, on Wednesday, the company backtracked, saying in a press release that it would require vaccinations for passengers and crew but that it is “premature” to set protocols for health and safety.

“Given the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic, the accelerating rollout of the vaccine, and the speed of scientific learnings, it is premature to make decisions about our health and safety protocols for cruises with embarkation dates beginning Nov. 1, 2021,” said Harry Sommer,  NCL’s president and CEO.

The controversy over the restrictions DeSantis’ order placed on cruise lines’ boiled over on Monday, when Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava tweeted a statement reading: “Many of our cruise partners at PortMiami are leading the way in announcing their own new policies requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated.”

On Wednesday, Cava issued a statement saying she was encouraged by efforts at the CDC to get ships sailing again. She added: “I look forward to working with the Governor to ensure his executive order does not place undue regulations on the cruise industry partners who are working hard to prepare a safe re-opening.”

Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said he commends DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody for pursuing legal action. Murray said he believes the CDC’s latest guidance for cruise lines “did not move the needle at all” to get cruises restarted.

“That framework is so onerous and so difficult to adhere to that it essentially is a no-sail order, and I’ve dubbed it ‘the impossible-to-sail order,’ “ said Murray, who oversees a port that is the second-busiest cruise port in the world, behind PortMiami, in terms of pre-pandemic passenger counts. Florida also is home to the third-busiest cruise port, Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades.

Murray said he hopes the state’s legal action will help speed up the return to cruises in the United States, bringing back jobs on the ships and at cruise ports, as well as at landside businesses near cruise terminals that get much of their revenue from cruise passengers, such as hotels, restaurants and retailers.

The cruise line shutdown has “been absolutely devastating for Port Canaveral,” Murray said, with the port cutting 43% of its staff. Port Canaveral has lost $87.6 million in cruise-related revenue from March 2020 through February 2021. Pre-pandemic, cruises and cruise-related parking accounted for about 80% of the port’s revenue.

Murray said he hopes the state’s lawsuit will quickly resolve the issue in favor of cruise lines being able to restart operations. But Murray noted that it will take some time, potentially, 75 to 90 days, for cruise lines to be able to bring back their international crews, which can number 2,500 or more per ship, from countries throughout the world, and get the ships ready to sail.

Currently, the CDC allows only essential personnel needed to run the ships aboard, and that may be only about 150 to 200 people, Murray said.

David Berman from the USA Today Florida Network contributed to this story.