Cruise line threatens to skip Florida ports over proof-of-vaccination ban
By Jesús Jiménez
Norwegian Cruise Line is threatening to keep its ships out of Florida ports after the state enacted legislation that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19 in exchange for services.
The company, which plans to have its first cruises available to the Caribbean and Europe this summer and fall, will offer trips with limited capacity and require all guests and crew members to be vaccinated on bookings through at least the end of October.
During a quarterly earnings call Thursday, Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said the issue had been discussed with Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a Republican. Del Rio said if the cruise line had to skip Florida ports, it could operate out of other states or the Caribbean.
“We certainly hope it doesn’t come to that,” Del Rio said. “Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It’s a very lucrative market.”
The clash between Norwegian Cruise Line and Florida is one of the many that are likely to surface about how states and businesses address whether proof of vaccination will be required. While some states have yet to take a position on businesses requiring vaccines, others are already operating with such protocols in place.
At many events in New York, such as Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association games, state health and safety guidelines require that fans provide proof of vaccination or of a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of attendance.
“We hope that this hasn’t become a legal football or a political football,” Del Rio said on the call.
Norwegian Cruise Line is headquartered in Florida along with Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival Corp. In 2019, about 60% of all U.S. cruise embarkations were from Florida ports, according to an economic analysis prepared last year for the Cruise Lines International Association.
In a business update Thursday, Norwegian Cruise Line said it was experiencing “robust future demand” with bookings for the first half of 2022 that were “meaningfully ahead” of 2019 bookings. Through the end of the first quarter of 2021, the company said, it had $1.3 billion of advance ticket sales.
In addition to prohibiting businesses to require proof of vaccination, the Florida law prevents state and local governments from closing businesses or schools for in-person learning unless there is a hurricane emergency.
“I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown governors,” DeSantis said in a statement Monday when he signed the bill. “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.”
His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday, and Norwegian Cruise Line could not be reached for comment.
“We hope that everyone is pushing in the same direction, which is we want to resume cruising in a safe manner, especially at the beginning,” Del Rio said on the earnings call. “Things might be different six months from now or a year from now.”
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows for cruise ships to conduct “simulated voyages” with volunteer passengers to see how cruise lines can safely resume operations with measures such as testing and potential quarantines.
The CDC requires cruise lines to complete the test runs before they can be cleared to sail with passengers this summer.
“It is not possible for cruising to be a zero-risk activity for spread of COVID-19,” the CDC said this past week. “While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, CDC is committed to ensuring that cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers and port personnel.”
The latest guidance recommends, but does not require, that travelers and crew members on cruise lines receive a vaccine when it is available to them.
On the earnings call this past week, Del Rio said Norwegian Cruise Line had submitted a proposal to the CDC that includes requiring proof of vaccines from all of its crew members and passengers.
It is unclear how much business Norwegian Cruise Line could stand to lose by avoiding Florida ports. Of the dozens of ports listed on its website, Norwegian Cruise Line has Florida ports listed in Tampa, Miami and Key West.
Del Rio said “pent-up demand” had helped fill bookings quickly.
“I believe it’s the No. 1 destination for Americans to the Caribbean,” Del Rio said. “Who knows? That vessel might prove to be so profitable there that it never returns back to U.S. waters.”