• The Star Staff

Ron DeSantis does disease


By Gail Collins


Perhaps you didn’t notice, but cruise ships haven’t been sailing out of American ports lately. Something about, um, a virus.


Many of us heard the first squeaks of a future pandemic when waves of infection broke out on a few alleged pleasure boats, leaving their multitudinous guests stranded on board, hostage to the new plague. The industry has recently been on … hiatus. But now it’s clamoring to get back in action with as few new rules as possible.


Florida, under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, is suing the federal government to open up the harbors. At the same time, it’s prohibiting cruise lines from asking passengers for proof of vaccination.


We pause here to note that at this moment in time, DeSantis is regarded as one of the leading candidates for the next Republican presidential nomination.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been unenthusiastic about letting the ships back on their voyages, and really, who could blame them? Imagine you were stuck trying to protect the nation from another COVID-19 surge while you had the whole country on your case, complaining about face masks. You’re terrified the pandemic could somehow come back, kill another half-million people and wreck the economy.


Would you really want to swiftly restore Americans’ rights to squish into a boat with several thousand other people, crowding at buffets and dances while enjoying entertainments like “roller coaster at sea” or a floating tattoo artist?


Nevertheless, the CDC came up with criteria that would allow the cruise ships to cruise again. The industry decried the rules — which bear the catchy title “Framework for Conditional Sailing and Initial Phase COVID-19 Testing Requirements for Protection of Crew” — as too burdensome and confusing.


Let’s take the opposite approach. As long as the government is devoting so much time and attention to the cruise industry, how about adding on a few other issues? In a typical year, there are more than 300 ships floating around the globe, scaring the whales and polluting the ocean. A 3,000-passenger ship, which today would rank just over medium-size, can produce 21,000 gallons of sewage a day, most of which gets pumped into the sea.


The human beings on board aren’t all necessarily in good shape, either. It was only recently that Congress actually required that the ships have a physician on board to treat any passenger in the event of an emergency.


“They treat their workers like … you-know-what,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., remarked delicately. A longtime cruise industry watchdog, Blumenthal had to fight for years just to get that doctor rule. The ship workers, he said, are trapped by forced arbitration clauses in their contracts that make it impossible for them to sue over conditions. Many of them are citizens of other countries, “which diminishes their rights even more. When they’re injured they have very meager health care.”


So we’ve got pollution, scared whales and oppressed workers. You will now undoubtedly be stunned to hear that Blumenthal also says the cruise lines “avoid taxes very aggressively and energetically.”


None of this has had any impact on DeSantis, who launched his anti-regulation campaign on behalf of the cruise lines by announcing that “Florida is fighting back.”


People, when you think of Florida, do you really think of a downtrodden victim of government overreach? Everybody is terrified of Florida! We spend a humongous amount of time obsessing about its clout in presidential elections. We keep hearing about the celebrities who are ditching the North to flock in. True, it’s a crowd whose headliners include former New England Patriot Tom Brady and former famous politician Donald Trump. But still, the beat does go on.


The cruise industry certainly brings some money into the places where ships dock — one trade organization estimated the business added $8.49 billion to Florida’s economy in 2018. The degree to which this is a blessing depends pretty much on where you live. The 24,000 residents of Key West do not regard having more than a million visitors a year tramping around their neighborhoods as a plus.


DeSantis’ political committee has thus far received nearly $1 million from the owner of a pier that gets most of that Key West traffic. Have we mentioned that he seems to be running for president? That he once broadcast a campaign ad in which he read to his little son from “The Art of the Deal”? And in which he taught his little daughter how to “build the wall”?


Cruise ship defenders have noted bitterly that people have been returning to air travel with relatively little controversy. Of course, airplanes all have serious ventilation systems. And we fly in planes because we need to get somewhere. Nobody ever buys a ticket thinking it’d just be fun to be in the air for a week or so.


To be fair, there are many, many people who really enjoy taking a cruise with several thousand strangers. Bet they’d have an even better time if they knew the new gang wasn’t infectious.

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