More cruises may leave Florida as debate grows about vaccines

A conflicting maze of COVID-19 rules could drive more cruises out of Florida.

The head of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. expressed frustration this week with federal guidelines governing the return of cruises to U.S. ports, including a recommendation that cruise lines require most crew and passengers to be vaccinated — which Florida law now prohibits.

Frank Del Rio, CEO of Miami-based Norwegian, said the cruise line would consider moving ships out of Florida if the state insists that cruise lines can’t require vaccinations for passengers sailing from local ports.

The comments added to a monthslong debate about when it will be safe for cruises to resume as other businesses have come out of pandemic hibernation. Other major cruise lines did not respond to questions Friday about whether they would follow Norwegian’s lead.

Until now, cruise lines have attacked guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which they say are needlessly complicated, unrealistic and slow to take force. The comments from Norwegian were the first to threaten to leave because of a new Florida law, championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccinations.

The law puts DeSantis in a difficult political position. The state has sued the CDC to allow cruises to resume but, at the same time, has prevented cruise lines from requiring vaccinations.

Since the spring, some lines that call South Florida home have announced they are moving some of their vessels to foreign ports to sidestep CDC requirements, after more than a year without sailing from U.S. ports. Giant parent companies including Norwegian and Carnival Corp. raised billions of dollars through borrowing, ship sales and new stock offerings to weather the worldwide health crisis.

In an earnings call with financial analysts Thursday, Norwegian CEO Del Rio warned that his company has the flexibility to set up sailings from other ports in the U.S. and those in foreign countries.

“At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can’t operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from,” he said. “And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would’ve gone to Florida,”

Around the industry, the shifting has already started, said Ellen Kennedy, spokeswoman for Broward County’s Port Everglades, which hosts several cruise lines, but not Norwegian. The line operates most of its Florida-based sailings out of PortMiami.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Gem sits at PortMiami, awaiting a hoped-for return to service.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Gem sits at PortMiami, awaiting a hoped-for return to service. (Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS)

“Several of the cruise lines have already made arrangements to cruise from the Caribbean islands as opposed to Florida and as opposed to the United States,” she said.

Starting in July, Norwegian plans to sail in the Caribbean out of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. It also plans trips in Europe that would start in Greece, Del Rio said last month. Normally, the Caribbean trips would start in Miami.

“I seriously doubt we will be able to stand up a vessel out of a U.S. port in July,” Del Rio told CNBC on Thursday. “August is also in jeopardy, and it’s all because of the disjointed guidelines from the CDC, What we received yesterday was anything but a clear path to restarting.”

He blasted a CDC rule that he said requires passengers to wear masks for the entirety of their trips, allowing them to remove the coverings only between bites of meals and sips of drinks.

“I know it’s absurd. I know it’s outrageous. I know it’s got to stop,” he said.

The CDC is recommending — but not requiring — vaccinations for crew members, passengers and workers at the nation’s seaports. The agency has said that companies can start cruises with paying passengers if they can show 98% of a ship’s crew and 95% of the passengers are vaccinated.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday about Del Rio’s threat to move Norwegian ships elsewhere. And Norwegian did not immediately respond to questions asking about the extent of backup plans to send ships elsewhere.

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Other lines setting up alternate plans include:

  • Royal Caribbean International, also based in Miami, announced sailings in March out of the Bahamas and Bermuda. A sister line, Celebrity Cruises, is scheduled to start sailings out of St. Maarten on June 5.
  • Carnival Corp’s Seabourn line recently announced it will sail from Barbados in July and will sail from Greece this summer. Holland America Line also will sail from Greece in August. Carnival has said seven of its nine cruise lines will be sailing internationally, not from U.S. ports.
  • Virgin Voyages, an “adult cruise” startup backed by billionaire Richard Branson, is sending its Scarlet Lady to the United Kingdom. The vessel was supposed to start service from Miami last year.

Jonathan Daniels, chief executive and port director, at Port Everglades, said it’s premature to tell what its roster of ships will look like once the sailing ban is lifted, though lines operated by two of the industry’s major holding companies, Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corp., appear destined to stay.

“There is a little bit of a change in the overall mix,” he said. “I think it’s in many respects a little early to understand what the rosters will look like just because there is so much in flux.”

Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International from the Royal Caribbean Group, and Holland America Line and Princess Cruises under the Carnival Corp. umbrella, are among the major lines whose ships called on the Broward County port before the pandemic hit.

“They talk to us about some of their alternative opportunities they have evaluated,” Daniels said. “We don’t feel there is any situation where they’ve said it’s ‘either, or.’ They’ve talked to us about deploying certain equipment in their fleets out of other ports for a period of time, but that’s a decision that’s up to them.”

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