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Florida Gov. DeSantis Is Fighting For Fewer Health Restrictions On Cruise Ships

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Cruise ships are sailing again from U.S. ports after being shut down for more than a year because of COVID. The cruise lines are restarting slowly, one ship at a time. And the rules they're following to protect the health and safety of passengers depend in part on the state where they are sailing from. NPR's Greg Allen reports that Florida's governor is in court fighting for fewer health restrictions on cruise ships, even though many passengers and the companies say they want them.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At Miami's port this weekend, hundreds of people queued up early to board one of the first cruises in more than a year. Most passengers were like Jan Weaver - excited and elated.

JAN WEAVER: I can't wait to get on board the boat.

ALLEN: Weaver is from Milton, Fla., and has been on more than 25 cruises. She thinks cruises should have started up long ago.

WEAVER: Yeah, I think they could have started earlier. I mean, we could get on an airplane for, you know, no telling how many hours, and it's like in a tin can. So this is - you can get out in the open air.

ALLEN: This weekend, a federal appeals court agreed with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that in shutting down the cruise industry for more than a year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority. DeSantis says the shutdown of the cruise industry cost Florida billions of dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Can you just have one agency in the government, without Congress ever passing a law, just basically shutting down an industry?

ALLEN: The appeals judges upheld a lower court decision that says for now, CDC regulations aimed at preventing the spread of COVID on cruise ships are only recommendations. Cruise lines haven't opposed the CDC regulations. The industry's trade group says companies will continue to follow the rules regardless of what happens with the lawsuit. Cruise lines and their customers are at odds with the governor on another key issue - vaccinations. DeSantis signed a law in May banning companies from requiring customers to be vaccinated, including cruise lines. DeSantis says it's wrong to create different classes of citizens based on vaccine status. Cruise passengers like France Rendell of Hampton, Va., disagree.

FRANCE RENDELL: If you're running a business, for the success of the trip and everyone on board being at risk, you should be vaccinated.

ALLEN: A survey of cruise customers by the website Cruise Critic found 80% of passengers prefer to sail on a ship with a vaccine requirement. Colleen McDaniel is Cruise Critic's editor-in-chief.

COLLEEN MCDANIEL: They are looking to return to cruising in a way that feels normal and regular. And that is more likely if you are sailing, you know, with a ship where everybody is vaccinated.

ALLEN: Two weeks ago, Norwegian Cruise Lines filed a lawsuit against the DeSantis administration, saying preventing companies from requiring vaccinations stops them from being able to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers. James Walker, a Miami attorney who specializes in cruise law, says the lawsuits have created a confusing situation for the companies and their customers.

JAMES WALKER: We have a governor who is pretending to be an advocate for the cruise lines, but he's really doing things that are not in the best interest of certainly the cruising public or ultimately the cruise lines themselves.

ALLEN: Mac Stipanovich is a longtime Republican political consultant, now retired. He says DeSantis has taken up a number of issues that are aimed at building support among Trump Republicans. They include a law that increases penalties for violent protests and another that targets social media platforms to suspend political candidates and others.

MAC STIPANOVICH: All of those are red meat thrown to the market base. The cruise line gambit is just part of his whole performance program.

ALLEN: For now, except for Norwegian, cruise lines are mostly avoiding direct confrontations with DeSantis as they slowly work to get the industry running again. In Texas and in Washington, where Alaska cruises are resuming, companies are requiring all adults to be vaccinated. On cruises that depart from Florida, cruise lines are allowing unvaccinated passengers on board but are requiring them to have regular COVID tests and to wear face masks.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "LIGHTHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.