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Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced Monday that it plans to resume cruising from Miami in August with fully vaccinated passengers, a plan that threatens to defy orders of Gov. Ron DeSantis and creates yet more uncertainty about one of South Florida’s most important tourist draws.
The cruise line’s announcement offered no indication that DeSantis has agreed to exempt cruise lines from his edict banning businesses from requiring vaccines, nor did it suggest that any sort of compromise had been reached between Norwegian and the governor.
Instead, it creates confusion about plans of cruise lines that in recent days have announced diverging strategies for resuming operations — with some planning test voyages, some requiring vaccines and some welcoming people on board with masks and social distancing.
Cruise fans and local workers are left wondering when the industry will get back on track in Florida.
“The fact that the public and the businesses and workers who depend on cruises restarting are being forced to read tea leaves is problematic,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
Carnival Cruise Line, meanwhile, announced that fully vaccinated voyages will take place from Galveston, Texas. Details of its plans in South Florida are still being hammered out in talks with state and federal authorities, the company said.
Royal Caribbean is taking the opposite approach — strongly encouraging but not requiring vaccinations and hinting that passengers who cannot prove they are vaccinated will face testing and other “protocols.” Royal Caribbean also said it is continuing to work with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and multiple state and local authorities on requirements for upcoming cruises.
Norwegian’s announcement signaled that it would prefer an amicable resolution to its conflict with DeSantis over requiring passenger vaccinations.
Its news release listing upcoming cruises quoted Norwegian president and CEO Frank Del Rio as praising DeSantis for publicly supporting Florida-based cruise lines in March and calling upon the CDC to create clear guidelines for cruising to resume. In March, cruise line executives were frustrated that the CDC was not telling them how vaccine availability would affect a complicated set of resumption guidelines issued last fall, before vaccines became widespread.
“We want to thank Governor DeSantis and the State of Florida for fighting in support of our industry,” Del Rio was quoted as saying. “His leadership helped bring the CDC to the table. We are currently in communication with his staff and legal counsel to ensure that we can offer the safest cruise experience for our passengers departing from the cruise capital of the world.”
Yet, by including voyages by Miami-based Norwegian Gem, Norwegian was in effect daring DeSantis to levy fines against the cruise line or use his authority to try to stop it if a compromise is not reached, Jarvis said.
Norwegian’s announced sailing from Miami amounts to both sides “playing a very high level game of chicken” that could backfire on either one, he said.
Norwegian “puts DeSantis in a spot where, to save face, he has to dig in on his position that the CDC has no authority to require proof of vaccination,” Jarvis said. “DeSantis, on the other hand, risks having to turn thousands of passengers away when they show up at the pier. Caught in the middle is the public and, more importantly, all the businesses and workers who depend on cruises restarting.”
DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions about Norwegian’s announcement.
In April, shortly after his public show of support for the cruise lines, DeSantis and the state filed a federal lawsuit challenging the CDC’s authority to prevent cruise ships from sailing from U.S. ports.
Afterward — coincidentally or not — cruise lines’ executives revealed that they had begun working closely with the CDC and that the CDC had simplified a number of resumption conditions they had found vague and onerous.
The biggest revision was the CDC’s announcement that cruise lines could skip requirements to conduct complicated “test cruises” aimed at verifying effectiveness of pre-vaccine safety protocols if they certified that 95% of passengers and crew for any particular voyage are vaccinated.
That option drove a wedge between DeSantis, unyielding in his position forbidding vaccine requirements, and cruise lines eager to expedite their resumption.
The problem as it remains now for DeSantis is that a vaccinated cruise will not be possible except under any of a handful of possibilities:
•DeSantis relents on his position that cruise lines cannot require customers to show proof of vaccines.
•DeSantis agrees to a compromise that would exempt cruise lines from his edict barring “vaccine passports” while still allowing the governor to claim that his ban was not defied.
•Cruise lines resume operations amid the threat of DeSantis levying fines or using his authority to stop them.
The nation’s two largest cruise lines — Royal Caribbean and Carnival — have so far sidestepped the conflict by opting to conduct test cruises in Florida according to the pre-vaccine safety guidelines while hoping a compromise emerges.
Royal Caribbean has said it chose not to require vaccines for upcoming Florida-based cruises aboard its Royal Caribbean International brand because those cruises are popular with families who have unvaccinated children, which would make it difficult to achieve 95% vaccination rates.
An announcement on Friday about the cruise line’s upcoming sailings says passengers are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated. Passengers who are unvaccinated or unable to verify vaccination will be required to undergo testing and follow other undetermined protocols. CDC guidance for voyages without vaccine requirements require mask wearing and social distancing outside of guests’ staterooms.
Yet Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises brand, a luxury brand popular with adults who like long voyages, has announced a fully vaccinated cruise out of Port Everglades on June 26, potentially setting up the same showdown with DeSantis as Norwegian.
Carnival announced plans to require vaccinations for voyages leaving Galveston, Texas, in July, including a planned July 3 sailing of Carnival Vista and a July 15 voyage on Carnival Breeze. Other Carnival brands are also requiring vaccines, including on ships sailing from Seattle to Alaska this summer.
Carnival’s announcement on Monday included an acknowledgement that CDC protocols for unvaccinated voyages, which would be legal in Florida, would nonetheless be unappealing to customers forced to wear masks and practice social distancing throughout the ship.
Current CDC requirements for unvaccinated cruises “will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” the cruise line said.
The Carnival release said the company “continues to work with both the State of Florida and the CDC for Carnival Horizon sailings and plans to provide an update by Friday concerning protocols specific to these sailings to all booked guests.”
After a mediation effort to settle the state’s lawsuit against the CDC failed last week, DeSantis’ office continued to blast the CDC’s regulations, calling them “crippling,” “ridiculous and unlawful,” and asserting that the agency’s requirement that unvaccinated guests wear face masks were “baseless” and “anti-science.”
It’s possible that Norwegian included its upcoming Miami-based voyage in its announcement on Monday because it felt enough progress has been made with the governor’s office behind the scenes, Jarvis said.
The fact that all three major cruise lines have recently mentioned ongoing talks with Florida officials could be taken as a positive sign, said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of the consumer focused website CruiseCritic.com.
While Celebrity Edge’s vaccinated cruise from Port Everglades is fast approaching, Grey Faust said Norwegian has plenty of time before August to revise details of its August cruise from Miami.
“It will be interesting to see where conversations go between now and then — as well as what protocols might be developed — though many cruisers are certainly craving details now, as they begin to plan upcoming sailings,” she said.