Lawmakers in tourism-reliant states push back on CDC’s cruise ship ban

The cruise ship Rotterdam (right) passes the Zaandam as it prepares to dock Thursday, April 2, at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(The Center Square) – Three Republican U.S. senators from tourism-reliant states rolled out new legislation this week that would lift the COVID-19 restrictions on cruise ships by July 4 of this year. If enacted, the measure could be a lifesaver for the hurting industry and bring billions into the economy of states hit hard by the pandemic.

Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced the Careful Resumption Under Improved Safety Enhancements Act, or “CRUISE Act,” this week.

The bill would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revoke their previous ban on cruise travel by Independence Day and create clear recommendations for how the industry can reduce the risk for passengers and crew.

“Unlike the airlines, rail, and other modes of transportation – and all other sectors of the hospitality industry for that matter – the cruise lines have been denied clear direction from the CDC on how to resume operations,” Sullivan said. “As a result, potential cruises this summer, when the President said the country will be able to return to normal with more and more Americans getting vaccinated, have been left adrift. The foot-dragging, mixed messages, and unresponsiveness of CDC leaders is totally unacceptable and ultimately endangering the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Americans and the hundreds of small businesses across Alaska that rely on the tourism sector.”

The CDC released the “Framework for Conditional Sailing and Initial Phase COVID-19 Testing Requirements for Protection of Crew” last year, halting cruises. The CDC originally released the restrictions to mitigate the COVID-19 risk for passengers and crew as well as to prevent the cruise ships from becoming hubs where infected Americans are sent back to their communities.

President Joe Biden has said the vaccine should be available to all Americans soon and that the country can return to a level of normalcy by July 4, the same day this proposed legislation would require the CDC to change its rules.

A widely vaccinated public that had to cancel last year’s vacations because of COVID-19 could rush to the newly opened cruise lines, creating a flood of demand and cash to the hurting tourism industry.

Democrats have been largely quiet about the proposed legislation so far, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did not respond to request for comment.

According to a report from the Cruise Lines International Association, the cruise industry grew to $55.5 billion in 2019, pre-COVID, and created 436,000 American jobs.

States that had strong cruise ship industries before the pandemic have been hit particularly hard. In 2019, the cruise industry created 159,000 total jobs in Florida, paying $8.1 billion in income. That does not include the corporate and administrative offices for cruise lines, many of which are based in Florida.

Alaska saw $1.3 billion in revenue from the cruise industry in 2019, creating 23,000 jobs that paid about $1.2 billion in wage income.

The spread of COVID-19 hit the cruise and tourism industry hard last year, wiping out vacations and planned cruises and plummeting demand for destination resorts.

“The benefits of cruise operations are integral to the economies of Florida’s port cities,” Rubio said. “Floridians and many other Americans who are employed by ports, cruise operators, or work in hospitality jobs near cruise terminals face an uncertain future because of the CDC’s unresponsiveness to requests for guidance by stakeholder groups.”

The three senators have allied with Rep. María Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., who is leading their effort in the House. Salazar represents Miami, the leading cruise hub in the the nation. Florida relies on the cruise industry for jobs and tax revenue.

“Welcoming over 5 million passengers and $9 billion directly into our economy each year, Miami is the Cruise Capital of the World and it is time to start sailing again,” Salazar said. “I am proud to join my Senate colleagues and lead this fight in the House so that our ships can return to sea, our longshoremen can return to port, and Americans can start cruising again. This legislation will fix the CDC’s arbitrary guidelines and give clarity and fairness to the industry that creates hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout Miami’s entire tourism economy.”

The cruise ship industry expressed support for the legislative measure.

“The uncertainty we’ve been living with the last year is probably the most devastating mentally for a business owner,” said Jeannette Pineiro, president of Cruiseport Destinations in Miami. “I have former employees that are still unemployed. They want to get back to work, and there has been nothing I could do. The cruise industry needs to be treated on par with other sectors of the travel industry, and this legislation would provide a plan to safely resume cruise operations.”

Since the ban on cruise sailing, the tourism industry has seen a dive in revenue. The lawmakers cited these economic factors in their decision to introduce the legislation.

“Florida is a tourism state with thousands of jobs relying on the success of our ports, cruise lines and maritime industries,” said Sen. Scott. “While many sectors of the economy have been safely operating for months under CDC guidelines, Floridians, and those across the nation that rely on the cruise industry for work, continue to wait for updated guidance from the CDC. The CDC’s refusal to properly address this shutdown is wrong and it’s time to get the cruise lines open safely.”