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Florida’s U.S. senators want cruising to resume without government intervention

·5 min read

Florida Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio say the cruise industry should be able to resume normal operations immediately — and argue that any continued government intervention needlessly hurts passengers, industry employees and contractors in Florida as COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline.

Their position is at odds with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which requires cruise ships to certify 98% of their crew and 95% of their passengers are vaccinated before they are able to set sail without first embarking on test cruises, and it’s different than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who advocated for a state law prohibiting cruise lines from asking for proof of vaccination before getting on a ship.

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for government to mandate disclosure of personal medical information,” Scott said in an interview on Tuesday. “But a private company, if they want to make a decision that’s going to keep their employees safe, their customers safe, that’s a business decision they get to make.”

Scott recently introduced a bill that would prevent the Transportation Security Administration from asking airline passengers about their vaccination status but said he has no issue with private companies asking for the information.

DeSantis, Rubio and Scott got a victory in federal court on Friday, when U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday said the CDC’s rules for dictating how cruises can restart can remain in place for Florida cruises until July 18. The judge granted DeSantis’ request for a preliminary injunction while the larger case continues in court.

After mid-July, the binding CDC rules turn into non-binding recommendations. The CDC has until July 2 to propose a more limited set of rules to the federal court.

Neither Scott nor Rubio directly criticized DeSantis’ continued push of a state law prohibiting private cruise companies from requiring vaccines, a law that a majority of Floridians disagree with according to a recent University of South Florida poll.

But they both said it’s not fair to single out the cruise industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in South Florida and operates out of ports in seven Florida cities, as other industries are able to resume normal operations at full capacity.

“At some point you’ve got to trust people here,” Rubio said in an interview on Wednesday. “Government’s job is not to tell everybody every decision they can make.”

Rubio said the widespread availability of vaccines for every American makes the risks of getting on a cruise for a fully vaccinated individual extremely low. And he said other forms of travel, notably air travel, are not subject to the same regulations as the cruise industry.

“I think the CDC has taken it upon themselves to regulate an industry, a singular industry, and they haven’t placed those restrictions on anybody else,” Rubio said. “I sit on airplanes every week, five to six hours on airplanes every week. I’m sitting 2 inches away from somebody. They have a mask but not when they’re drinking, and I don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated.”

On Wednesday, the CDC lowered its travel warning for cruise passengers to Level 3, down from Level 4, and clarified that the guidance applies to passengers who are not fully vaccinated. The new guidance continues to recommend that people who are not fully vaccinated avoid travel on all cruise ships, and requires masks on board for all passengers, including those who are fully vaccinated.

On Thursday, Scott introduced a bill that would repeal federal mask requirements on public transportation, including cruises. Earlier this week, Scott tried to include his idea as an amendment to a larger bill during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, but Democrats blocked the proposal. At least one Democratic senator, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, agreed with Scott that mask mandates for fully vaccinated passengers on public transit should likely be phased out soon but expressed wariness that Congress should get involved to override the CDC.

“The science just doesn’t support keeping this policy in place,” Scott said in a statement. “We have to listen to the science and work together to move America forward.”

Rubio said the government and elected officials should continue to urge people to get vaccinated because that lowers the COVID-19 risk for everyone. But he said continued mandates hurt the industry’s ability to get employees back to work and paying tourists on ships.

“Otherwise, what’s the alternative? Until there’s no COVID cases anywhere in the world cruises aren’t going to be able to sail?” Rubio said. “We won’t have a cruise industry.”

Florida’s first test cruise, a simulated voyage with volunteer passengers to test out COVID-19 protocols, will set sail Sunday. The first full passenger cruise in Florida from Port Everglades is scheduled for June 26.

Rubio and Scott did not express opposition to a potential workaround of Florida law from Celebrity Cruises, the first company scheduled to resume U.S. operations. The company’s website states that passengers boarding in Florida who decline or are unable to show proof of vaccination “will be treated as unvaccinated and you will be subject to additional costs, restrictions, and protocols that we will advise you of as soon as they have been determined.”

“I hadn’t seen that, but if it’s a private company making those choices, that’s an issue they’ll have to make,” Scott said.

And Rubio, who said he recently watched a pharmacist walk around CVS offering vaccines to anyone in the store who wanted one, said cruise passengers at this point should be empowered to make decisions on their own.

“People are aware of the risks, they’re aware of the ways to protect themselves and vaccines are widely available so at this point I think there’s really no reason to single [cruises] out,” Rubio said.

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