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CDC approves first cruise from Florida, but DeSantis may stand in the way

The restart plans clash with a law recently passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis that bars businesse from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.
Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas departs Port Canaveral.
Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas departs Port Canaveral.
Published May 27
Updated May 27

Federal health officials have approved the first passenger cruise from the U.S. from Fort Lauderdale in June — but Florida’s governor insists he will block company plans to require passengers be vaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wednesday gave Royal Caribbean Group approval to start seven-night cruises to the Caribbean on its Celebrity Cruises brand ship, Celebrity Edge, on June 26, according to an agency spokesperson. The ship is the first to win Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approval for revenue cruises since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The approval is a welcome milestone for the cruise industry, which has been paralyzed in the U.S. since March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on several ships.

“For the past 15 months our conversations with friends and loved ones about seeing the world have been accompanied by the phrase ‘someday.’ I’m beyond proud and excited to say that day has arrived,” said Celebrity Cruises CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo in a statement. The June 26 cruise will leave from Port Everglades and visit Mexico and The Bahamas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all cruise passengers be vaccinated, but doesn’t require it. The agency has given cruise companies two options: meet vaccination thresholds of 98 percent of crew and 95 percent of passengers on the ship and start revenue cruises immediately, or forego the thresholds and first perform test cruises to ensure COVID protocols are working. Cruise ships that meet the threshold will have more relaxed mask and social distancing rules.

Celebrity Cruises spokesperson Susan Lomax said the company has opted to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination threshold and will require all crew and passengers 16 years old and older to be vaccinated. The age requirement will drop to 12 years old on Aug. 1.

The go-ahead for Celebrity Cruises follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s approval — also the first of its kind — of test cruises with volunteer passengers aboard Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas ship from PortMiami in late June. Freedom of the Seas will require all crew and passengers 16 years old and older to be vaccinated, but will not meet the agency’s vaccination thresholds — meaning it must first perform test cruises before revenue cruises can begin.

Royal Caribbean Group is the second largest cruise company in the world with three cruise lines: Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Silversea.

The restart plans clash with a law recently passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature and promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis that bars businesses, schools and government entities across Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. Under the new law, which takes effect on July 1, businesses can be fined up to $5,000 per violation. The only exemption in the law is for licensed healthcare providers.

“We’ve been very clear, the law is clear in Florida,” said Taryn Fenske, spokesperson for the governor. “You can’t mandate vaccine passports. We are interested to see how the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) works with them so that they don’t get these exorbitant fines.”

Celebrity plans to restart its cruises days before the new law takes effect. Lomax said the logistics of its vaccine requirement are still being worked out.

“We are working with the Governor’s office to align on the path forward,” she said via email.

DeSantis sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month, asking a judge to force the agency to drop its cruise safety requirements and allow cruises to begin immediately. The judge instead sent the case to mediation, which begins Thursday.

Wednesday’s approval signals long-sought relief for the cruise industry, which first began working with the CDC to restart cruises last October under a conditional sail order issued by the agency. Cruise companies had to enhance COVID-19 testing capabilities on their ships, report weekly crew test results to the agency and secure agreements with ports and local health authorities in the cities they plan to visit.

PortMiami will welcome volunteer passengers on board Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas for a two-day test cruise on June 20. PortMiami also submitted an agreement to the CDC with Carnival Cruise Line that has not yet been approved.