Imagine a government telling you how to run your business.
Imagine that, despite having an Ivy League education, that government’s leader doesn’t listen to science because he doesn’t want to be seen as weak, putting his constituents in mortal danger for the sake of political expediency.
After signing into law legislation that prohibits Florida companies from mandating vaccines as a prerequisite for service, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — with initial success — causing this federal Agency to temporarily lose the authority to regulate the cruise industry.
However, on July 17, an appeals court gave the cruise industry the green light to do what it pleases as it relates to COVID-19. In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the CDC and, by extension, Norwegian Cruise Lines, which filed an amicus brief. The court ruled that the COVID-19 guidelines for cruise lines returning to operation are rules, not suggestions, reversing a lower court decision that was in favor of the state of Florida.
The state had a short-lived triumph, but it’s not over. Unfortunately, DeSantis says the state plans to appeal.
The cruise industry wants to keep its crews, passengers and the public as safe as possible. Science tells us that the most effective policy to accomplish this goal is mandatory vaccines. Unfortunately, DeSantis’ intransigence has taken that option off the table.
Cruise-industry executives are no fools. They understand the challenges of keeping their business afloat and their passengers and crews safe, absent a vaccine requirement for cruises originating from Florida ports. They have developed contingency plans that now can be in conjunction with CDC guidelines.
However, with the Delta variant spreading like wildfire and overall COVID-19 infection rates spiking, the governor’s gamble is jeopardizing an industry that employs 436,000 people nationwide, 159,000 of those in Florida alone, and generates a $55 billion economic impact in the United States.
One homegrown Miami entrepreneur has decided not to roll his dice with DeSantis. Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, has filed a separate lawsuit against Florida’s surgeon general last Tuesday, accusing the state of preventing the company from “safely and soundly” resuming trips by barring it from requiring customers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. This new suit is separate and apart from Florida vs the CDC.
Norwegian is claiming that Florida’s ban is not valid because it preempts federal law and violates various provisions of the Constitution, including the First Amendment.
Where does this leave the industry, the governor and most importantly the health and well-being of cruise passengers?
If the CDC lost its appeal, the ruling might have had serious implications:
The federal government could have looked to reclaim some of its lost authority over the cruise industry through taxation or labor and environmental regulations. With DeSantis positioning himself as a potential challenger to President Biden’s re-election, the temptation for Democrats in Congress and the administration to knock the GOP rising star down a peg may be too much to resist.
This would be bad news for an industry that has a debt load of over $60 billion and is burning $1 billion a month to stay “afloat.”
But the governor can hardly afford to be seen as destroying one of the largest industries in his state, coupled with a replay of the Diamond Princess tragedy of last year with sick passengers returning to a Florida port.
In 2019, there were 8.3 million cruise passengers from Florida alone, a population that tends to skew older. They deserve to know that their fellow passengers, with whom they share meals and entertainment in enclosed spaces over many days, are fully vaccinated.
As Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corp. steer clear of a direct confrontation with the governor, Norwegian is taking the plunge in a court of law, trying a new approach to protect business and customers from COVID-19.
DeSantis has gotten some things right during the pandemic, but this is not one of them.
There is still time for him to course correct.
Round Three has yet to be decided, but another verdict in Norwegian’s favor is a verdict in favor of the cruising public and the survival of one of Florida’s most important industries.
Let’s hope the court does the right thing again if the governor won’t.
Philip Levine is a former two-term mayor of Miami Beach. He is the founder of Miami Cruise Lines Services, which was acquired by LVMH.