Florida’s overriding interest in safe cruising | Editorial
Why should public health take a backseat to politics in this key state industry?
Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas, a brand new cruise ship that accommodates up to 4,180 passengers, docked at Terminal 1 after arriving at Port Canaveral on June 4, 2021.
Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas, a brand new cruise ship that accommodates up to 4,180 passengers, docked at Terminal 1 after arriving at Port Canaveral on June 4, 2021.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 16, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ opposition to so-called “vaccine passports” is bad for the cruise industry, ship passengers and Florida’s own economy. It’s another example of how politicians have politicized the coronavirus to their own detriment, and to that of citizens who expect a reasonable balancing of public health as the nation reopens.

As Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reports, DeSantis refuses to budge from a state law he sought that bars the cruise industry from requiring that passengers be vaccinated. The industry, which plays a major role in Florida’s tourism sector, is quietly crafting a work-around for the governor’s mandate as it seeks to restart cruising after a 15-month shutdown. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are at stake, along with revenue to suppliers, public ports and the maritime services industry, including the major presence established in Tampa Bay.

Vaccines are critical to preventing COVID-19 outbreaks on cruises. These travelers tend to skew older, and many have underlying medical complications. The ships can carry thousands of passengers at a time, who often congregate in large settings. And these voyages last for days or weeks, making it easy to overrun a ship’s medical facilities if an outbreak occurs on board.

Some cruise companies have vowed to defy Florida’s ban and restart cruises as soon as this month. Others have said they will not require vaccines. Royal Caribbean International has announced a two-pronged approach, encouraging all passengers to be vaccinated and, while not requiring them, imposing more restrictions and costs on unvaccinated passengers. Celebrity Cruises has taken a similar tack, telling passengers 16 years old and older that they can volunteer proof of vaccination or be treated as if they are not, subjecting them to additional safety restrictions and costs. This is an uncertain environment for cruise lines and passengers alike, and a public health risk that only undermines Florida’s recovery.

The law is a sop to anti-vaxxers at the expense of cruise lines and travelers acting responsibly, and it ignores the practical reality that cruise ships are an entirely different environment for managing public health. DeSantis has also sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to challenge its cruise safety rules, leaving only weeks to resolve the matter before cruise operators set sail as planned for the first time since March 2020.

The cruise companies should insist on putting the safety of their passengers and crews first. Operators could maintain that they operate largely as foreign entities, with foreign-flagged ships in international waters. That would at least give Florida a face-saving way to allow cruise lines to enforce the vaccination requirement within port terminal properties. This is a problem of DeSantis’ making, and unless Florida wants to lose cruise business, or wage war with an industry central to tourism, the governor would do well to step back from this exercise in political posturing.

Aren’t Republicans about letting the market decide? A spokesperson for the lobbying group Cruise Lines International Association said its research shows “strong support” for robust public health protection measures; indeed, a February survey of nearly 3,000 Cruise Critic readers found a wide majority of respondents — 81 percent — said they would cruise if vaccines were required. Only five percent said requiring vaccines would deter them. It’s time that Florida stood with science, common sense — and its own economic interests.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.