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Cruises Resume Out of Florida As Legal Battles Play Out, COVID Numbers Spike

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Just as cruising out of Florida's ports restarts, the state leads the nation in COVID-19 cases, causing concerns that ships will be docked once again.

More than a month after Royal Caribbean did a test voyage to simulate how the line would handle passengers if they tested positive for COVID-19, the cruise company this week faced the real thing: six guests aboard the Adventure of the Seas tested positive, the company confirmed Friday.

Four of the guests, who are not traveling together, are vaccinated. Of these adult passengers, three are asymptomatic and one has mild symptoms. The remaining two passengers, traveling together, are unvaccinated children and are not presenting symptoms.

In an email, Royal Caribbean International wrote that the guests were quarantined and close contacts were traced; all tested negative. Each guest and travel companions disembarked in Freeport, Bahamas.

The company confirmed that to travel on the Adventure, which departed Nassau on July 24, people 16 and older must have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and had to test negative before boarding. Children under 12 who aren't eligible for vaccines also had to test negative. All of the staff are fully vaccinated.

Five weeks ago, Royal Caribbean did a test voyage to go over the steps it would take in the event of COVID-positive guests. In the early morning of June 22, roughly 650 "passengers" on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas ship disembarked at PortMiami after a trip to a private island in the Bahamas. The passengers weren't actually tourists, but staff members who volunteered to help test Royal Caribbean's measures to control the spread of COVID-19.

"It gave me chills, said Elisa Shen, one of the volunteers and the associate vice president of onboard revenue. "You feel like the world got smaller during the pandemic, and this really felt like we're really accessing this freedom again to travel, experience and just enjoy life.

"We’ve worked so hard on so many protocols, that I really wanted to get out there and test out how does it actually pan out."

Some of the measures in place to control transmitting the disease include physical distancing, COVID-19 testing when boarding the ship and at the end of the trip, doing contact tracing in the event of a positive case, having a medical facility on board, as well as steps to isolate and even disembark a COVID-positive guest.

Hernan Zini, the ship's captain, said the trip, although a simulation, raised morale among staff. "Our crew is over the moon," he told WLRN at PortMiami after the trip. "Our crew is always great, but they are in adrenaline right now."

For 15 months, cruises hadn't left Florida's ports — since March 2020, after dangerous COVID outbreaks on ships. At that time, ships with outbreaks had to negotiate to dock in ports. In late March, Gov. Ron DeSantis did not want Holland America Line’s Zaandam to dock in the state because passengers died onboard and other passengers tested positive after being turned away from Chile.

Then in October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a conditional sailing order, which laid out phased steps for cruise companies to follow to resume voyages with paid passengers.

One option was to sail with a simulated voyage, as Royal Caribbean did in June. Another option was to have nearly all staff and guests show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

In April, Florida's government sued the CDC over its sailing order, or regulations. The state argued the CDC was overreaching and burdening the ailing cruise industry because simulated voyages cost too much. Florida also argued that forced vaccinations discriminate against children younger than 12, because they don’t yet qualify for vaccines.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, based in Tampa, ruled in favor of Florida. In his ruling, by July 18, the CDC requirements would become recommendations. The CDC appealed.

Last week, things changed again. A panel of judges at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, decided that the CDC regulations could remain in effect while the legal challenges moved forward. Just a few days later, the panel reversed course and the CDC rules went back to being suggestions.

"I’m glad to see the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse its prior decision and free the cruise lines from unlawful CDC mandates, which effectively mothballed the industry for more than a year," DeSantis said. He's also added in the past that these rules affect Florida's economy.

No American cruise line, however, has said it wants to sail with unvaccinated crew or passengers.

On Saturday, the first cruise to sail from Port Canaveral with paying customers since the stoppage left on a seven-day Caribbean journey. Carnival Cruise Line’s new Mardi Gras had about 70% of its normal 5,282-passenger capacity.

Mardi Gras was the fifth Carnival ship to resume. It is the first to have a roller coaster and is powered by liquid natural gas, a first for a ship in the Americas.

In Key West, some are pointing to an increase in sales taxes and airport numbers compared to 2019. Locals tell WLRN bars are very busy on Duval Street, even though July is usually a slow month for tourism there.

"The economy down here is completely booming," said Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Committee for Safer, CleanerShips in Key West, which has one of the busiest ports in the state. "We have not suffered any economic harm from the absence of cruise ships."

Haskell and his group were supportive of the CDC order, which required that port and local health authorities ensure cruise lines had the infrastructure in place to manage an outbreak of COVID-19 on ships to include health care capacity and housing to isolate infected people and quarantine those who are exposed. Key West could limit the volume of cruise tourism.

"Here in Key West we have an extremely limited medical infrastructure," Haskell said. "As a starting point, we have fewer hospital beds than the state average, we're about four hours from the nearest mainland hospital" and, he added, a large volume of ship visitors.

On the mainland, though, Vicky Garcia points to the financial losses that come with a stalled cruise industry.

"Aside from our business as travel agents, it's the florists that deliver flowers to the ships," said Garcia, the CEO and co-owner of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs. "It's the Uber drivers, the Lyft drivers, the taxi drivers, it’s the food purveyors, it's the guys who load luggage on the ships."

She wants people to think of cruising as not any more dangerous than other means of travel.

Still, Garcia said, her customers are booking cruises on lines that require vaccinations "like crazy."

A new Florida law that went into effect on July 1, prevents companies from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

Now, Florida has asked a federal judge to reject arguments made by Norwegian Cruise Line that a state ban on the vaccine passports is unconstitutional. Norwegian made a request for a preliminary injunction. Florida argues it exercised its “sovereign power” in banning vaccine passports. A hearing is scheduled for next week. The cruise line is slated to resume sailing out of Florida on Aug. 15.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Verónica Zaragovia