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DeSantis Threatens Fines Over Cruise Vaccine Requirement

The Regal Princess cruise ship, seen here in a publicity photo, was allowed to dock at Port Everglades after tests for the coronavirus came in negative for two crew members.
Princess Cruise Lines
The Florida Channel
The cruise industry in Florida has been idle more than a year due to the pandemic.

Celebrity Cruises would be subject to a fine of $5,000 for each customer asked to show vaccination status under the state's "vaccine passport" ban. “We are going to enforce Florida law,” the governor says.

Although federal officials have given the green light to Royal Caribbean to resume sailing in June, Gov. Ron DeSantis maintained on Friday that cruise lines would be fined if they require proof of coronavirus vaccinations.

A federal mandate that 95 percent of all passengers over 16 be fully vaccinated would violate a current executive order and state law going into effect July 1 that bars businesses from asking for "vaccine passports," the governor said.

“We are going to enforce Florida law,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Lakeland. “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. In fact, I have no choice but to enforce it.”

In that case, Celebrity Cruises, a Royal Caribbean subsidiary, could be subject to a fine of $5,000 for each customer asked to show vaccination status.

Cruises have been on hold since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order for ships in March 2020. Now, 14 months later, the CDC has approved plans for cruise lines to return to the sea.

The CDC has given cruise lines two options to resume revenue bookings: meet vaccination thresholds of 98% of crew and 95% of passengers and start revenue cruises immediately, or first perform test cruises to ensure COVID protocols are working.

Celebrity Cruises has decided to comply with the vaccination threshold.

On Wednesday, the CDC gave Royal Caribbean approval to start seven-night cruises to the Caribbean on its Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge on June 26. The ship is the first to win CDC approval for revenue cruises since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The governor’s office on Thursday said the CDC had no legal authority to set such requirements and was providing “coercive” guidance in violation of state law. DeSantis signed the executive order and bill May 3.

Florida is suing the CDC, citing the state's loss of billions of dollars in economic activity due to the shutdown and claiming the agency overreached through its guidelines. A judge has ordered the case to go to mediation, which DeSantis said has already started.

The governor said he is confident the state will ultimately "win the case."

"it’s a larger issue than just the cruises. You cannot have some bureaucracy that does not have the legal authority to do this claim an emergency and shutdown commerce,” he said.

While the vaccine passport ban confounds industry leaders, the governor insists "nobody has fought harder" to get ships back in business.

"Not just for cruises, but the entire leisure and hospitality sector in this state," he said.

I can tell you this: All those cruise lines, if we win, they are going to be very much be interested in doing the Florida business. And by the way, we provided vaccine for a lot of their workers.”

Earlier in the week, the CDC gave its first approval for test cruises to Royal Caribbean out of PortMiami. The company will conduct simulated cruises with volunteer passengers in late June to test out COVID-19 protocols on its Freedom of the Seas ship.

Cruise lines with ships that run out of Port Canaveral have also filed applications to do test runs.

“Royal Caribbean filed their application for Miami, ours has already been filed as well, and they did hear that the Miami application was approved by the CDC,” Port Canaveral CEO John Murray said. “It was turned in like 24, 36 hours, so it went pretty quick. So we’re optimistic that we’re gonna start getting some approvals this week and then start putting some ships on the map.”

The CDC guidelines include ships having PCR laboratories on board to test for COVID-19.

“Every cruise lines has to have an agreement with a hospital, has to have agreements with a transportation company to move people that might be sick to a hospital, and housing agreements if someone has to be quarantined ashore, so they’ve been working these deals independently,” Murray said.

Port Tampa Bay isn't scheduled to host its first cruise until November.

One of Tampa's main cruise lines, Norwegian, said this month it was considering suspending Florida departures because of the ban on vaccine requirements, but Port Tampa Bay's website shows the company plans to resume local operations in December.

Norwegian Cruise Lines also sails out of Port Canaveral and PortMiami.

Information from The Florida Channel and Health News Florida’s Abe Aboraya (WMFE) and Steve Newborn (WUSF) was used in this report.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.