Johanna Jainchill
Johanna Jainchill

It's getting hard to keep track of the lawsuits involving Florida and the CDC regarding cruise restart regulations -- and what it means for cruises departing from the cruise capital of the world.

Florida's case against the CDC to overturn the Condition Sailing Order makes industry watchers particularly prone to whiplash, given the ping pong-like court decisions. First, in June a judge sided with Florida, granting a temporary injunction against the order. The CDC appealed that ruling on July 6, and a federal appeals court sided with the CDC, saying it could indeed enforce the Conditional Sailing Order in Florida. But it didn't take long for the Eleventh Circuit Court to reverse that decision, which happened Friday, shortly after Florida appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What's really puzzling to many travel advisors is how Florida can so squarely be on the cruise industry's side when it comes to the CDC but also make their restart more difficult with its law prohibiting businesses from asking clients for proof of vaccination.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) sued Florida to invalidate that law, saying that the legislation "places NCLH in an impossible dilemma as it prepares to set sail from Florida: NCLH will find itself either on the wrong side of health and safety and the operative federal legal framework, or else on the wrong side of Florida law."

Industry groups like ASTA have applauded Florida in the CDC case; ASTA said this week that it welcomed the latest decision "as a positive development for both its members and the traveling public and looks forward to full resumption of cruise line operations in Florida next month." CLIA has long said the Conditional Sailing Order unfairly singles out the cruise industry, which should "be treated similar to other transportation, hospitality and tourism sectors."

But as per a statement this week from CLIA, the latest ruling, which turns the CDC regulations into recommendations, does not mean cruise lines are going to drop their health and safety protocols just because they can.

"CLIA oceangoing, cruise line members resuming initial operations from Florida and all other U.S. ports will continue to operate in accordance with public health protocols that prioritize the health and safety of passengers, crew and the communities we visit," CLIA said. "This aligns with the cruise industry's decades-long commitment to following the advice and guidance of scientists and public health experts."

The message, basically, is that cruise lines want to follow the science when it comes to protocols. Patrick Scholes, cruise industry analyst with Truist Securities, said in a note that members of the travel industry, including executives at large travel agencies, want the industry to be as safe as it has been in its restart, adding that "cruise lines are possibly one sizable outbreak or conceivably a Covid-related death away from potentially being back where they were a year ago: It's not the CDC that could put them out of business; rather it will be customers who will become skittish.

"We applaud, as do the travel executives, the industry for being cautious so far around Covid safety protocols and sympathize with NCLH for the 'impossible dilemma' they are in, trying to comply with state laws and CDC recommendations," Scholes wrote. "We believe the cruise lines really do not want unvaccinated passengers at the moment, but Florida is not giving the cruise lines any choice in the matter."

Cruise lines operating from Florida seem to be handling it, so far, by changing their wording about vaccines to "strongly recommend" rather than mandate, and by making it very unattractive for unvaccinated passengers to sail with them by requiring testing -- up to three times per cruise on some lines -- at the passenger's expense, and making them purchase travel insurance that would cover Covid-related complications.

For Frank Del Rio, CEO of NCLH, it appears that route does not provide enough protection for his three brands' guests. In a declaration to the court in its suit, Del Rio said, "The fact that 34 million Americans have contracted Covid-19 and 600,000 have died tells me that the trifecta of mask-wearing, social distancing and washing hands were not sufficient to curb the transmission and effects of Covid-19."

The flip-flopping court rulings present yet another challenge for travel advisors trying to keep guests informed and updated. But Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, said it's one more reason more consumers are turning to advisors this year. Cruise Specialists normally averages about 27% to 30% new-to-brand business, but this year that number is higher than 30%.

"We're pleased with that, and I believe that can grow more, too," she said. "People want to work with someone who they feel comfortable with and trust. They may have had issues with an online booking engine or source. Consumers are far more interested in being in the trusted hands of an advisor, and there's a lot more responsibility that goes with that."

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