Cruise industry tanks: DeSantis’ mixed messaging leaves business grounded

A court case in Florida might not only decide the financial fate of America’s cruise industry, in ports from Miami to Anchorage, but also the political fate of a governor (and 2024 presidential contender) who now finds himself caught in its wake.

Beyond the lawsuit, the overriding issue is whether cruise lines can mandate vaccinations and other safety measures if they conflict with state law. Meanwhile, an industry nearly shuttered by COVID-19 is held at anchor while solutions are held at bay.  

Florida, home to the world’s largest cruise terminal Port Miami (with 6.8 million annual passengers, 22 cruise lines pre-pandemic),is at the epicenter of this square-off over who gets to make the call – the federal government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state or the companies themselves.

Remember, it has been more than a year since images of the Diamond Princess cruise ship signaled a worldwide pandemic.

Diamond Princess makes headlines

Although overwhelmed hospitals and understaffed nursing homes bore the brunt of public attention, the first unshakeable images of sick and quarantined passengers aboard the Diamond Princess dominated the headlines. The cruise industry became COVID-19 enemy No. 1.

Cue the CDC. Charged with protecting the nation’s health, its officials made a quick (and wise) decision to shut the cruise industry down until medical science would ensure this contagion could be limited and controlled on these floating cities. 

The Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama, Japan, early in February 2020. (Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU, AFP via Getty Images)

Ultimately, the North American passenger shipping industry was banned from operating from any U.S. ports for over a year, causing untold economic pain to these companies, their vendors and the more than 436,000 employees who rely on cruising to feed their families and pay their bills. 

As miserable as this has been, it doesn’t compare with the pain and suffering many more could have endured if the CDC hadn’t taken measures to pause American cruise operations until deemed safe.

The worldwide medical establishment needed time to get a handle on this virus, how it spread so fast, to create a successful protocol for testing and treatment, and a tested vaccine for distribution. Officials have now checked all four boxes. It’s time to move America’s cruise industry – like the airlines – back to the forefront of travel.

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More than 50% of all Americans are now partially or fully vaccinated, and the CDC has moved in methodical fashion to allow cruise ships to sail from, and call on, American ports. 

The industry also had the support of public champions from both sides of the political aisle who understand that jobs, affordable family vacations and beautiful oceans are neither Republican or Democrat. They belong to all of us.

Yet when partisan politics get in the way of good intentions, policies and people suffer needlessly. Exhibit A: Florida. First, Gov. Ron DeSantis uses a libertarian, free-market approach to keep the state open while others closed shut. Now he’s doing an about-face, dictating rules to ailing cruise companies who want to set sail swiftly and safely. 

DeSantis: CDC delayed the restart of Florida’s cruise sector 

DeSantis used to prize the power of the marketplace. Now he’s focused on his own. After failing to assist the cruise industry,the governor then took aim at the CDC, claiming that its “arbitrary and capricious” actions were responsible for delaying the restart of Florida’s cruise sector.

Most major cruise line executives were stunned by the governor’s legal action, fearing it might provoke this crucial federal agency to dig in its heels. In truth, at the time of the suit, the CDC had already begun expediting moves to safely restart cruising routed into one of two pathways. 

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One would ensure at least 95% of guests were vaccinated. The other was far more encumbering. It mandated test cruises, multiple and redundant COVID testing, wearing masks full time, major social distancing, reduced occupancies, limited shore excursions and other unachievable – and economically unfeasible – hurdles. 

This option would have rendered cruising unenjoyable and the business uneconomical. 

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Clearly the CDC had a preference, signaling to the cruise lines in flashing neon lights: Vaccinate your passengers!!!

Yet the governor ignored this message, and the pleas of the cruise lines, passing a new law prohibiting any Florida company from requiring proof of vaccination.It forces the industry into a Catch-22 conundrum: Either violate Florida law and resume cruising successfully, or stay in the good graces of both the governor and CDC by obeying a law that will alienate your guests with an unrecognizable cruise experience and force a debt-laden, Florida-centric industry down a longer road to recovery.

There is a third choice. The governor could go back to his pro-business, pro-Florida, marketplace-driven bearings by advocating an exemption or modification to this law to safeguard the nearly 159,000 cruise-related Florida jobs now in jeopardy, and protect America’s reputation as the world’s best home port. 

While the judgment of the federal trial in Tampa may not be known yet, the verdict from the court of public opinion – fueled by millions of cruise line passengers, hundreds of thousands of workers and thousands of businesses – is already in.

As the words from an old Mills Brothers song warns: 

“You always hurt the one you love, 

The one you shouldn’t hurt at all.” 

Anchors aweigh, Governor. Let America – and Americans – cruise.  Do that, and you’ll be remembered for doing right when it counted the most for those who needed it the most.  

Philip Levine is the former two-term Democratic mayor of Miami Beach and one-time candidate for Florida governor. Levine is the CEO of Royal Media Partners, a former partner of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and founder of Miami Cruise Lines Services, which was acquired by LVMH. Follow him on Twitter: @MayorLevine

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