Don't get excited about Florida cruises yet. The state's 'vaccine passport' ban creates ocean of confusion

Celebrity Cruises is the first cruise line to receive approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sail with paying passengers. But there's a complication: Florida law.

The CDC approval hinges on a vaccine requirement. Celebrity, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Group, will require 100% of crew members and 95% of passengers who will be on board the Celebrity Edge to be fully vaccinated when the ship sets sail on a seven-night cruise June 26 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and for sailings thereafter.

But that requirement is at odds with a Florida state law banning "vaccine passports," which goes into effect on July 1, and is also outlined in an executive order from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"Vaccine passport" is a term referring to proof of vaccination. While there's no official national or international document serving as such a passport, various types of COVID-19 vaccine certification are being developed in some parts of the world, such as Europe.

The opposite of a smooth sailing start

Between the CDC's cruise vaccine rules, Florida's vaccine passport ban and cruise line plans, an extremely murky situation is clouding the return to cruising from Florida ports.

The question remains whether ships will be able to sail from Florida with the state's "vaccine passport" ban in place – or what the ramifications will be should they inquire about passengers' vaccination status, which is required by the CDC but banned by the state.

"Requiring customers to show proof of immunization violates the spirit of the governor’s Emergency Order 21-81, which prohibits vaccine passports and protects the fundamental rights of Floridians – including the right to medical privacy," Christina Pushaw, DeSantis' press secretary, told USA TODAY Thursday.

For cruise lines offering cruises on ships with paying passengers, the CDC is requiring that 95% of crew and 95% of passengers be fully vaccinated to board.

Simulated cruises, which will be filled with volunteer nonpaying passengers, do not have the same mandate. But there is some complexity, as well. Volunteer passengers are still required to share information about their vaccination status on these test cruises.

And while passengers participating in test cruises aren't required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, they must have written documentation from a health care provider or must self certify that they aren't at a heightened risk for COVID-19 if they aren't, according to the CDC. And all must agree to be evaluated for COVID-19 symptoms before embarking and after disembarking, along with an agreement to be tested for COVID-19 three to five days following the cruise.

Royal Caribbean International, a sibling line to Celebrity Cruises, has received CDC approval for such a test cruise.

Cruise ships docked at Port of Miami in Miami Beach, Florida on April 14, 2021.
Cruise ships docked at Port of Miami in Miami Beach, Florida on April 14, 2021.

Celebrity Cruises says COVID-19 vaccine requirement stands

Celebrity Cruises intends to keep the Edge on schedule past July 1 with a full season of seven-night cruises from Fort Lauderdale running through the end of October, Susan Lomax, spokesperson for Celebrity, told USA TODAY Thursday.

"We are working to finalize our health and safety measures for cruises departing from U.S. ports, including Florida, in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as local authorities in the U.S. and destinations we visit," Celebrity said in a statement provided by Lomax.

"Our commitment to sail with fully vaccinated crew members and guests still stands as it is a meaningful layer to ensure we make every effort to help keep safe our guests, crew and the communities we visit," Celebrity continued.

Passengers will be required to present their official vaccine verification at the cruise terminal ahead of boarding.

Florida says cruise lines need to comply

Pushaw said that the CDC has "no legal authority" to set requirements for cruise lines to follow.

"Governor DeSantis has been continuously fighting for the cruise industry," she continued. "The CDC arbitrarily singled out the cruise industry, and their requirements are unlawful. The CDC cannot mandate vaccines, nor passports. Attempting to do so not only violates civil liberties, but also discriminates against families with children who enjoy vacations – while causing undue economic hardship to the businesses that support the ports."

If cruise lines comply with the CDC and ask passengers to show proof they are vaccinated against COVID-19, they will be in violation of Gov. DeSantis' executive order and, after July 1, state law.

"We look forward to seeing Celebrity Cruises set sail in compliance with Florida law," Pushaw said.

Pushaw was unable to comment on whether test cruises would be in compliance with Florida law given they don't have a vaccine requirement but still require information on volunteer passengers' vaccination status.

Can Florida stop cruise lines from requiring COVID-19 vaccine proof?

Jim Walker, a maritime and cruise ship attorney from Miami, told USA TODAY that there is no quick answer to the opposing powers.

According to Walker, the CDC trumps DeSantis’ authority in terms of health requirements on board a cruise ship.

That said, a cruise line would need to take DeSantis to court for that to be made clear. But there are many reasons cruise companies might not want to make an enemy out of DeSantis, who, as governor of Florida, heads one of the world's cruise capitals.

"It is conceivable that Gov. DeSantis could blink, so to speak, and the Florida statute could be withdrawn, but he seems committed to making a direct political move catering to his base," Walker said.

DeSantis' reasoning for the vaccine passport ban has to do with personal liberties and equality, according to Pushaw.

"Gov. DeSantis has stated many times that allowing the CDC to dictate that private businesses must require 'vaccine passports' for Floridians taking part in everyday life – attending sporting events, dining at restaurants, or even going on cruises – would create two unequal classes of citizens based on vaccination status," Pushaw said. "This would be discriminatory, unethical, and harmful for society."

Though one doesn't currently exist, a federal statute requiring proof of vaccine could also override a state law, according to Walker.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise COVID vaccine rule at odds with Florida 'vaccine passport' ban