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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a Thursday press release blasted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its cruise ship policies, calling the organization a “bureaucratic virus against science-based governance” and accusing it of “discriminating against children.” The governor's fiery missive comes as cruise lines in Florida accede to the federal public health agency's requirement they return to the high seas with vaccinated passengers. It is in defiance, first, of a DeSantis executive order banning so-called vaccine passports and, now, Florida law codifying the prohibition into state statute.Out of touch: Is DeSantis 'out of touch' with businesses on vaccine passport ban?Vaccine passport ban: DeSantis' vaccine passport ban confounds cruise lines' reopening plansCruise lines, including Deerfield Beach-based Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, are gearing up for "test sail" cruises later this month. On Thursday, Bahamas Paradise welcomed its Grand Classica ship back to the Port of Palm Beach. The ship will have a "test" sail with fewer than 50 passengers on June 25, then, if they get approved, will have full cruises beginning July 2.DeSantis’ wrath stemmed from what he said was an impasse in negotiations surrounding a lawsuit brought in April by the state against the CDC over the time it was taking the agency to issue detailed requirements for cruise ships to restart after being shut down by a no-sail order on March 14, 2020.“It is well past time to end the CDC’s desperate attempt to prolong its power trip over America,” he wrote.Attorney: CDC is in the right to do what it takes to get ships sailing againBut Miami-based maritime attorney Mike Winkleman said the CDC is within its legal limits and discretion to do whatever it takes to get cruise ships sailing again safely and it is more likely DeSantis who has ulterior motives."He was upset that he didn’t get his way in mediation, and he’s clearly coming out banging his chest and throwing out as many talking points that his base will approve of," Winkleman said. "The CDC's goal is simply to get people cruising safely. Gov. DeSantis' goal is, 'How do I kowtow to my base to best position myself in 2024?'"More: Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line to restart with safety, fun and vaccines as top priorities says CEOThe CDC was already in the process of crafting the rules when Florida's lawsuit was filed, said a CDC spokesperson. On Thursday, the agency declined to comment on DeSantis' press release, but offered the following statement. "CDC and the cruise industry agree that the industry has what it needs to move forward and no additional roadblocks exist for resuming sailing by mid-summer," the statement said.CDC guidelines require that 95% of crew and 95% of passengers must be vaccinated for a ship to sail. But to determine that, cruise ships would have to require people prove they have been vaccinated. That goes against a Florida law that DeSantis signed on May 3 prohibiting any company from requiring proof of vaccinations — also called vaccine passports — from passengers or customers. Notably, not one cruise line or industry association signed onto Florida’s lawsuit against the CDC. And in that same vein, many cruise lines are now forging ahead with plans to sail with both vaccination and mask requirements, skirting state law.Florida was big for cruises pre-pandemic. Who wants to lose that?"What the Florida governor's authority and ability is, is very murky waters," said Winkleman. "They are not U.S. entities, they are foreign entities ... DeSantis can regulate them, impose fines and even prevent from sailing. But if he chooses to do so, he’s playing a very dangerous game.”Dangerous because, before the pandemic, Florida rated as the top cruise departure point in the United States. The industry was a $9 billion-a-year enterprise supplying roughly 150,000 jobs. No political leader wants to be seen as standing in the way of the industry's resumption.While DeSantis's press release was aimed at the CDC and not cruise lines, at a May 28 press conference he threatened to smack the cruise lines with fines if they fail to comply. Requiring proof of vaccination is a direct violation of Florida law, punishable by a $5,000 fine for each occurrence.But Winkelman said DeSantis is going to have a hard time enforcing it. "Cruise lines are not going to lie down and let him dictate how they can and cannot operate," Winkelman said. "They will fight tooth and nail with the best lawyers money can buy. The ace up the sleeve for the cruise lines is just moving out of Florida."Norwegian hints at operating from the Caribbean instead of FloridaWhich is precisely what numerous cruise lines, including Norwegian, have threatened to do. “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,” said Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio on a May 6 earnings call. “And we can operate from the Caribbean for ships that otherwise would’ve gone to Florida.” Other analysts say it is critical to Florida's economy that the industry be allowed to thrive and operate in the safest possible manner. Peter Ricci, director of Hospitality & Tourism Management Programs at Florida Atlantic University, said that means letting them require masks, vaccinations or whatever they deem necessary.“Our governor is so pro-tourism, but the move to not allow business to require passports ... I think travelers would feel safer,” he said. “You would just feel a little more confident getting on a plane or boat if you knew everyone around you was vaccinated.”While DeSantis in Thursday's press release called the CDC’s vaccine requirement “unlawful,” a leading director of the World Health Organization said it is more likely that Florida’s law prohibiting companies from requiring vaccinations is what is unlawful. “It would be very difficult, and very unwise, for Florida to stop a company from doing a vaccine passport,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health and director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.Furthermore, he said, it simply does not make good sense. “The message is that you may think you have a very effective vaccine, and you might desperately need this for your own health and safety and for your business to thrive, but you can’t do it," Gostin said. DeSantis claims vaccine requirements are harmful to childrenAccording to DeSantis' Thursday press release, vaccine requirements are not only an invasion of medical privacy, but hurtful to children, who, if they are too young to get vaccinated, would not be able “to enjoy a cruise vacation.” “By imposing unlawful vaccination requirements for cruise ships — something no other business can do — the CDC is discriminating against families with children, preventing them from cruising,” the press release said, adding that “COVID-19 is less dangerous for children than seasonal influenza.” DeSantis also took aim at the CDC’s requirement that cruisers wear face masks, calling the policy “anti-science.” “Floridians can go to a restaurant, movie theatre or bar without a mask; no one should be forced to wear a mask on a cruise ship,” the press release read. DeSantis pointed out in the press release that while airlines, hotels, theme parks and sports venues have all been allowed to reopen, cruise lines have not. He said the CDC has failed to provide a set date upon which cruises can resume business operations, however, he did not mention that numerous cruises are already booked with plans to sail this month. Some, such as Celebrity Cruise Lines, will require vaccinations for everyone 18 years of age or older. Norwegian Cruise Lines will require proof of vaccination from all passengers. Others, such as Bahamas Paradise, are doing “test” sailings in an attempt to legally skirt the mandatory vaccination rule. If the CDC approves a ship's test sail, then the ship need only require passengers test negative for COVID within 72 hours of boarding the ship, said a spokesperson for Bahamas Paradise. Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are also planning test sails, according to their websites.Winkleman agrees that Gov. DeSantis and the state of Florida, by passing laws that conflict with CDC rules, have put cruise lines in an incredibly difficult situation. "They either follow the governor's mandate and thereby risk having COVID outbreaks that would be catastrophic for them publicly and lead to litigation, or they follow the CDC guidance and risk the threat of getting fined by Gov. DeSantis," he said. So, what's the answer?"I wholeheartedly think and believe that the cruise lines need to follow and must follow the CDC guidelines," Winkleman said. @WendyRhodesFL
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