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Florida Law May Thwart Effort By Cruise Industry To Set Sail

NOEL KING, HOST:

A cruise ship will set sail from a U.S. port in just a few weeks. It's a seven-night Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale with all crew and adult passengers vaccinated. The cruise industry has been shut down for the past 15 months by the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC said last month that cruise ships with nearly all passengers and crew vaccinated can resume sailing. But NPR's Greg Allen reports there is a problem. It violates a Florida law.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: This ad by Celebrity sums up the relief and excitement among cruise companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Some day is finally here, and we're ready to sail beyond again.

ALLEN: The extended shutdown has cost the industry more than $17 billion in direct losses. The Celebrity Cruise departing June 26 will be the first under new CDC protocols. The CDC says ships can resume sailing under two scenarios. The first is after conducting test cruises with masks and social distancing in place to show they can keep passengers and crew safe. The second scenario, one advocated by the industry, allows ships to resume sailing immediately as long as 95% of passengers and crew are vaccinated. Chris Gray Faust is managing editor of the website Cruise Critic.

CHRIS GRAY FAUST: People will not have to wear masks. They will not have to do social distancing. And at least in the U.S., they'll be able to do shore excursions without, you know, staying in a cruise ship bubble type of situation.

ALLEN: The idea of requiring all adult passengers to be vaccinated is popular not just with the companies, but also cruise passengers. Faust says a survey conducted last week found 80% of cruise passengers said they would prefer to sail on a ship with a vaccine requirement.

FAUST: So what we're finding is that avid cruisers want to get back to sea, but they would overwhelmingly prefer to be on a ship with vaccines.

ALLEN: That's what passengers want. It's what cruise lines want. But it's not what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants. He recently signed a bill passed by the Republican legislature at his request, which bans a company from requiring any customer to show proof of vaccination. Under the law, each violation carries a $5,000 fine. Asked about it last week, DeSantis said it applies to cruise lines and that if they violate it, they'll pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: We are going to enforce Florida law. I mean, we have Florida law. We have laws that protect the people and the privacy of our citizens, and we are going to enforce it.

ALLEN: The law doesn't go into effect until July 1, so this month's Celebrity cruise is unaffected. But Florida is one of the cruise industry's most lucrative U.S. markets. If an exception isn't carved out for cruise ships, major problems lie ahead for an industry eager for a restart.

On an earnings call last month, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank Del Rio said his company plans to require all adult passengers to be vaccinated no matter what Florida or its governor says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK DEL RIO: But at the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders. And God forbid we can't operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from.

ALLEN: One of the states gearing up for cruising to return is Washington. A number of lines have announced Alaska cruises next month, vaccinations required, departing from Seattle. The peak season for Caribbean cruises doesn't begin until December. Chris Gray Faust with Cruise Critic believes the conflict in Florida over requiring vaccinations will be resolved fairly soon.

FAUST: I mean, just traditionally, the state of Florida and the cruise lines have had a very good relationship. It seems like at least what we're hearing is that it's in everybody's best interest to work something out.

ALLEN: Backing up that optimistic outlook, a cruising blog recently reported on a call a Celebrity Cruise vice president had with travel agents. She said companies are working with the governor's office on a statement that will allow them to require vaccinations. The governor's office denies that a deal is in the works.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.