After a year of curfews, restrictions, and social distancing, businesses across the nation are still fighting to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic—but few have faced stormier seas than the troubled cruise industry. The pandemic was not just a setback; it was an existential threat, one accompanied by some of the worst press coverage imaginable. But now the industry is getting some help from Florida’s superstar governor, Ron DeSantis, who is fighting to rescue a mainstay of his state’s economy. Together, DeSantis and the cruise lines have just won a major battle that opens the door to a swift comeback for cruises in the months ahead.
Last year, as coronavirus cases skyrocketed and ships around the world saw outbreaks, the CDC imposed a blanket no-sail order in mid-March. It effectively barred all cruise ship operations from U.S. ports. Then, last October, the CDC pushed to extend that order. But as President Trump sought to get businesses back open safely and quickly, the CDC’s recommendation was overruled by Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force. The administration instead opted to institute a “conditional-sail” order.
The conditional-sail order was meant to help cruise lines that were struggling with crushing losses during the pandemic—a cause also helped by millions of dollars in federal relief funds. Under the new rules backed by the Task Force, cruise ships had to run mock trips to prove compliance with safety protocols, test crewmembers, and passengers regularly, and coordinate with port authorities worldwide to limit the potential spread, among other restrictions.
Even under these slightly loosened rules, the cruise industry continued to falter, with massive ships sitting empty in Miami’s harbor.
In early April, Governor Ron DeSantis decided the industry could not be forced to wait any longer.
After months of inaction by the Biden Administration, DeSantis filed a lawsuit against the CDC on behalf of the State of Florida, asking courts to intervene to ease the restrictions.
DeSantis announced the lawsuit at a press conference at which cruise line workers surrounded him. “Florida is fighting back,” he declared. Compared to loosened restrictions on other hospitality industries such as restaurants and airlines, the delay in resuming operations was “not reasonable” or “rational,” DeSantis said.
Florida was not alone. Alaska, another state heavily reliant on the industry, soon intervened to join the lawsuit.
Finally, after months of public pressure and DeSantis’s new litigation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent a letter to industry leaders in late April allowing cruise lines to depart from American ports if 98 percent of crews and 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated.
The CDC’s announcement that it is easing restrictions represents a major victory for the companies and for the state of Florida. Now CDC officials say their goal is to put “cruise ships closer to open-water sailing sooner.”
At times last year, it seemed the cruise industry might never return. When Dr. Anthony Fauci told people they might never again shake hands, it was hard to imagine that Americans would soon go back to cramming aboard cruise ships by the thousands and sailing off to remote corners of the globe.
After well-documented and heavily criticized operations during the early months of the pandemic, some observers went so far as to call cruise ships “floating dungeons.” Thousands were trapped on board in COVID outbreaks that garnered front-page headlines.
With more than 300 major cruise ships and a combined capacity of over half a million passengers before the pandemic, cruise lines have historically constituted a major part of world tourism. According to the industry, cruise lines contributed over $50 billion and 400,000 jobs to the American economy.
Now, the U.S. government is finally cutting cruise ships loose from tight federal control. Cruise lines, passengers, and Florida’s governor are hoping it is not too late.
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