As some cruise lines prepare to begin sailing from offshore ports in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Caribbean, Florida senators and representatives are pushing for a route that will allow cruising to resume from the United States.
“We’ve got to get a plan, going forward,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said. “It’s been unfair” to the cruise industry.
Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge and nine other Republican Senate and House members from Florida and Alaska have sent a letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, urging the Biden administration to immediately issue clear guidance for the resumption of operations for the cruise industry.
Florida is the center of the U.S. cruise market, while Alaska could lose much of its summer tourism if cruises remain idled.
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Major cruise lines have not sailed out of Port Canaveral and other U.S. ports since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which triggered a no-sail order from the CDC.
Cruise lines are working on restart plans that will meet the CDC’s extensive “framework for conditional sailing” announced in October that replaced the no-sail order. The CDC announced additional technical instructions Friday, but the guidance failed to offer clarity on timing to restart U.S. cruises.
Cruise line officials contend that they have procedures in place that enable safe cruising, and cruises have successfully sailed in recent months in Europe and Asia.
The push from cruise lines and elected officials to resume cruising comes as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a White House briefing Monday that she’s anxious that a new wave of COVID-19 infections is coming.
“Right now, I’m scared,” Walensky said.
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The vaccine rollout is giving people hope and the spring weather is making everyone even more restless, she acknowledged, but added it’s too soon for Americans to let down their guard, return to travel and stop using the precautions — such as mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing.
President Joe Biden reiterated Walensky’s sentiments, calling on governors and mayors to continue or renew COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates.
“The war against COVID-19 is far from won,” he said. “We could still see a setback in the vaccination program. And, most importantly, if we let our guard down now, we could see a virus getting worse, not better.”
Bahamas, Bermuda sailings
In the meantime, some cruise lines are poised to begin sailing from nearby offshore ports with American passengers so they can bypass the restrictions on sailing from U.S. cruise ports like Florida’s big three: PortMiami, Port Canaveral and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
Case in point: Royal Caribbean International recently announced that it will offer seven-night cruises from June through August aboard the Vision of the Seas from first-time home-port Bermuda. It also will offer seven-night cruises on the Adventure of the Seas, starting in June, from its new home-port in Nassau, the Bahamas.
The cruises are targeted largely at Americans who currently cannot sail out of Florida ports. The sailing itineraries of both ships include Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas, which it calls “Perfect Day at CocoCay.”
Separately, Celebrity Cruises plans to base its Celebrity Millennium in St. Maarten for seven-night cruises beginning in June.
During a roundtable discussion at Port Canaveral last week with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Royal Caribbean International President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Bayley said there has been “fantastic demand, primarily from our American customers,” for its new cruises from the Bahamas.
“Travelers are eager to venture out gradually and start cruising again,” Bayley said in a separate statement announcing its new offerings from Bermuda. “We are thankful to the government and people of Bermuda for welcoming us to their beautiful island nation with open arms as Vision of the Seas’ new home-port. This is another step in our safe and measured return to sailing, beginning in June.”
During the forum at Port Canaveral, Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy also alluded to efforts by Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines to move typically U.S.-based ships offshore.
“Americans will be able to fly on a plane, get on a ship in another country, take their cruise, and then fly right back,” said Duffy, who also is national chair of the U.S. Travel Association. “At Carnival, we have not made any plans to move our ships out of our U.S. home-ports, and I hope we that won’t have to do that. But we need some movement, some direction” from the CDC.
Posey — whose congressional district includes Port Canaveral — said “cruise ports in other countries have found ways to operate in a limited capacity, and it’s time for us to do the same. It’s incumbent on the CDC to work with the cruise industry and our ports to provide the guidance necessary to make that happen.”
Scott said he is concerned about the movement of ships to offshore ports, and fears it could further cost U.S. jobs in Florida and elsewhere, not only at the cruise lines, but also in other tourism-dependent businesses.
On the Space Coast, for example, many Port Canaveral cruise passengers stay at local hotels before or after their cruises, eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores and visit local attractions.
Officials in the Bahamas and Bermuda now are hoping to see economic gains from having ships home-ported in their countries.
“We look forward to welcoming Royal Caribbean passengers back to our shores, and the opportunity for pre- and post-cruise stays in Bermuda,” W. Lawrence Scott, Bermuda’s minister of transport, said in a statement released by Royal Caribbean.
In a separate statement, Bahamas Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said: “As we anticipate a promising return to a vibrant tourism industry, news that the cruise industry is going to begin home-porting in the Bahamas is exciting. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of passengers will experience Nassau or Grand Bahama in ways they never had the opportunity to before.”
Minnis called Royal Caribbean’s announcement “truly a new day for tourism,” adding: “It should inspire many small- to medium-sized businesses, tour operators, taxi drivers, restaurants and retailers to prepare for brighter days ahead – the best we have ever had.”
Port Canaveral loses jobs, money
Meanwhile, Port Canaveral’s cruise terminals remain idle – including Carnival’s new $155 million Cruise Terminal 3 complex that was completed in May, but has yet to see cruise passengers pass through its doors.
Port Canaveral CEO John Murray said Port Canaveral has lost $87.6 million in cruise-related revenue from March 2020 through February 2021. Additionally, it has reduced its staff by 43% – from 268 positions to 153. That was done through a combination of 68 permanent layoffs, 17 unpaid furloughs, and not filling 30 positions that were left vacant because of retirement or employees taking jobs elsewhere.
About 80% of the port’s overall revenue typically is related to cruises.
DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody indicated on Friday that they would consider pursuing legal action if the CDC does not issue guidance soon that would allow cruise lines to resume operating from U.S. ports.
“In Florida, we have everything going on, except the cruise lines,” DeSantis said.
Duffy and Murray said in interviews after the roundtable discussion that they hoped the issue didn’t come to a lawsuit, but added that they felt everything possible needed to be done to get cruise operations restarted.
“I’ll support anything that gets our business on track,” Murray said.
Scott and the other senators and representatives wrote in their letter to Zients that “the administration has overlooked an entire industry by failing to provide guidance for the safe resumption of cruises. The future of the cruise industry and thousands of good-paying jobs at our states’ ports and supporting businesses are now at stake.”
In an interview with USA TODAY network member FLORIDA TODAY, Scott said he has been “very disappointed” in the CDC’s lack of action in helping the cruise industry restart, but remains optimistic that there will be movement soon.
“It’s a big issue,” Scott said. “It affects a lot of jobs.”
Karen Weintraub of USA TODAY contributed to this report.