Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line is threatening to steer clear of Florida after the governor signed legislation banning businesses from requiring that customers show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
The company says the law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis is at odds with guidelines from federal health authorities that would let cruise ships sail in U.S. waters if nearly all passengers and crew members are vaccinated.
“It is a classic state-versus-federal-government issue,” said Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. “Lawyers believe that federal law applies and not state law, but I’m not a lawyer. And we hope that this doesn’t become a legal football or a political football.”
Del Rio told analysts during the company's quarterly earnings call Thursday that if the company can’t operate in Florida, it can go to other states or the Caribbean “for ships that otherwise would have gone to Florida ... we certainly hope it doesn't come to that.”
Del Rio said the company is still discussing the matter with DeSantis’ office.
Last month, DeSantis signed an order banning businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination and prohibiting state agencies from issuing so-called vaccine passports that document COVID-19 vaccinations and test results. This week, he signed legislation that includes the provision about businesses and gives him power to overrule local measures related to the pandemic, such as mask mandates.
DeSantis said the order and the legislation were matters of preserving individual freedom and privacy. On Friday, the governor's office did not immediately respond to the Norwegian Cruise Line CEO's comments.
Norwegian aims to have all passengers and crew vaccinated. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would let ships skip practice voyages and begin trips with paying customers if 98% of the crew and 95% of passengers are vaccinated and ships take other measures to limit the risk of transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19.
Cruise lines have been barred from sailing in U.S. waters or stopping at U.S. ports since March 2020, early in the pandemic. Some are slowly resuming trips in other countries and requiring that all passengers on those cruises be vaccinated.
The companies are pushing the CDC to let them return the U.S. this summer, although none of the major companies — Norwegian, Royal Caribbean Group and Carnival Corp. — have announced any U.S. cruises.
Del Rio said the path to resuming U.S. cruises is “a bit rockier and a bit steeper” than expected, and he said a mid-summer restart “could be in jeopardy.”
Norwegian said after the market closed Thursday that it lost $1.37 billion in the first quarter after losing $4 billion last year. The company said, however, that bookings have picked up, raising hopes for a recovery in early 2022.
Its shares rose about 2% in Friday afternoon trading.