CHARLOTTE AMALIE — The nation’s only Black governor has called out the Republican governor of Florida, saying Ron DeSantis’ bullying tactics with the cruise ship industry over proof of vaccinations for passengers is wrong on the science — and doesn’t follow CDC guidelines.
Governor Albert Bryan sent a letter on Monday to DeSantis asking him to reconsider legislation that bans cruise ships embarking from Florida ports from requiring proof of vaccination, an action that Bryan said contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines and would stifle the restart of the cruise industry.
Also this week, Bryan sent a separate letter to CARICOM Chairman and Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves asking for support from the Caribbean Region in finding the path forward to restarting the cruise industry in as safe a way as possible.
“I respect your commitment to health and civil liberties and write to ask you to reconsider the measure in the Florida legislation standing in the way of cruises sailing from the state with vaccine requirements,” Bryan wrote in his letter to DeSantis. “Florida, the United States Virgin Islands and the Caribbean region—our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”
In his letter to DeSantis, Bryan also noted that Florida is the nucleus and biggest embarkation point for cruises in the United States and that Florida is home to the headquarters and key infrastructure of major cruise lines.
“If nothing else, grant an exemption to cruise lines that have destinations in the Caribbean. This will be a big win for the people of the Caribbean and the Caribbean expatriates that live in your state,” the Democratic governor wrote. “It is my hope that you will reconsider and move in the same direction. I am committed to working with you to find an agreeable path forward.”
In his letter to Gonsalves, Bryan asked that CARICOM support his initiative to restart the cruise industry vital to island economies.
The Governor also noted that most of the Caribbean islands have had issues with ensuring that visitors are duly vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus because of difficulties obtaining the vaccine.
“St. Thomas, one of the most popular ports of call for cruises in the Caribbean, is in the direct line of fire, alongside the other port-of-call destinations,” Bryan wrote regarding the Florida law banning proof of vaccination. “The COVID-19 pandemic has hammered the world. The cruise lines want to operate out of Florida, and they want to do so safely.”
Meanwhile, two passengers on the first ‘fully-vaccinated’ cruise from the United States have tested positive for coronavirus during a Caribbean voyage this week.
All passengers were required to show proof of vaccination before boarding the cruise in addition to a negative test taken within 72 hours before departure from Sint Maarten last Saturday.
Celebrity Millennium was one of the first cruises in North America to restart sailing last week, after more than a year of halted operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 600 guests were welcomed on board the week-long voyage – a fraction of the ship’s 2,218 capacity.
Royal Caribbean started sailing this month after meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) comprehensive guidelines that included a fully vaccinated crew and requirements for everyone over 16 to present proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
Florida “is the cruise capital of the world,” with billions of dollars of revenue and thousands of jobs at stake, said Doug Parker, editor of the Cruise Radio website.
“It would be a big blow if they couldn’t come to terms.”
If neither side gives in, Parker said, cruise ships ‘would have to start sailing out of other ports that would accept them… because these ships are trying to do the right thing.’
The CDC currently requires that more than 95 percent of passengers and crew be vaccinated in order for cruise lines to bypass a requirement for trial voyages.
The chief obstacle now for cruises departing from Florida comes from DeSantis, who made his tourism-dependent state one of the first to drop its pandemic restrictions.
Last month he signed into law a bill barring businesses from demanding vaccination ‘passports,’ stopping them from requiring that employees provide proof of vaccination – and threatening fines for noncompliance that could amount, for cruise lines, to $5,000 per passenger.
The measure takes effect July 1, just when cruise lines hope to resume operations after a year in which Covid played havoc with their industry.
“While the governor, on the one hand, wants to see jobs back and tourism back… (he) is kind of his worst enemy, because he’s also saying, you can’t ask for that same proof,” Parker said.
The Republican governor’s terse response: ‘Our state policy is our state policy.’
To DeSantis’s critics, his is a political decision aimed at winning the votes of Donald Trump sympathizers – many of them vaccine skeptics – ahead of a possible re-election campaign in 2022.
With the world’s three biggest cruise lines all based in Miami, the coming months offer a calendar of confusing and shifting health requirements, with conflict a near-certainty.
Carnival Cruise Line will require vaccination on cruises leaving from Texas — another Republican-led state that has been quick to drop COVID curbs — but Carnival has provided no detailed information on a cruise set to leave Miami on July 4.
This Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line — which has threatened to abandon Florida ports altogether — directly defied the Florida governor by saying it would demand proof of vaccination on all its cruises.
‘We are currently in communication with his (DeSantis’s) staff and legal counsel to ensure that we can offer the safest cruise experience for our passengers departing from the cruise capital of the world,’ the company’s CEO, Frank Del Rio, said.
The third big cruise line, the Royal Caribbean Group, meantime reversed itself.
Having initially announced that it would demand proof of vaccination, it said Friday that passengers and crew were only “strongly recommended’ to get the vaccine, and that anyone unvaccinated would face ‘other protocols.”
On social media, the reaction to this news article on Facebook was a mixed bag.
“Keep playing Russian Roulette with people’s lives for sake of money,” Avis Ronan said on Facebook.
“I don’t understand our governor. He guarantees Virgin Islanders that 98 percent of crew ship passengers who enter the V.I. will be vaccinated. But to get on the ship, they are not required to show proof of vaccination, so are we going to take their word? Where is the guarantee in that?” Dora Magras-Cerge said on Facebook.