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Norwegian Cruise Line may flee Florida over state ban on "vaccine passport"

Cruises to resume in U.S. waters this summer
Cruise ships resume operations in U.S. waters this summer 00:24

Norwegian Cruise Line could bypass Florida ports because of the state's new edict banning businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

The order signed Monday by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis conflicts with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention letting cruise ships sail in U.S. waters again provided that 95% of passengers and 98% of crew are vaccinated against the disease.

"It is a classic state-versus-federal-government issue," Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio told analysts in the company's earnings call on Thursday. "Lawyers believe that federal law applies and not state law, but I'm not a lawyer. And we hope that this doesn't become a legal football or a political football."

Florida's law prohibits businesses and government agencies in the state from using or issuing so-called vaccine passports — paper or digital proof that someone is vaccinated against COVID-19.

The CDC's stance gave cruise operators a way out of a prior requirement that first mandated trial voyages before paying customers could board ships, which typically carry thousands of vacationing passengers. 

Major cruise lines halted excursions from the U.S. in March of last year, when the CDC issued a "no-sail" edict that continues to bar passenger cruise ships from leaving domestic ports. The pandemic has killed more than 580,000 Americans.

Cruising to other ports?

If Miami-based Norwegian is unable to dock any of its 28-ship fleet in Florida, "There are other states that we do operate from. And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would've gone to Florida," said Del Rio, who added his company hopes to continue operating out of Florida, calling it "a very lucrative market." 

Norwegian is continuing a dialogue with DeSantis, who cast the new state law as one protecting individual freedom and privacy. "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," DeSantis, a Republican, said in signing the legislation. 

But Del Rio questioned why the CDC isn't requiring all crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated before setting sail. "I don't understand 98% and not a 100% percent. So you have a big ship. You have 1,800 crew members on board and you're going to vaccinate 1,764 of them, but not 36? I mean, what a loophole to allow potential COVID to be introduced in the crew area." 

Travel industry hopes to rebound as pandemic declines 09:11

Norwegian plans to require all passengers and crew on board to be vaccinated, he said. Cruise ships are often settings for disease outbreaks because of their closed environment and contact between travelers from many countries, according to the CDC. Cruise lines have long contended with outbreaks of the norovirus, for instance, one of which sickened more than 300 passengers and crew on a Princess Cruises ship in February 2020.

Then the novel coronavirus emerged. From February 3, 2020, to March 13, 2020, there were roughly 200 cases of COVID-19 confirmed among cruise travelers on multiple ocean voyages, including Carnival Cruise Line's Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, according to the CDC. 

The Diamond Princess and Grand Princess had more than 800 total COVID-19 cases, including 10 deaths, the CDC stated last year.

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