The same Republicans ranting about President Biden’s supposed socialist takeover are just fine putting free enterprise in a straitjacket when it suits them.
Take Miami, the capital of the global cruise industry, where ships are prepared to sail again in July by complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that 98 percent of crew members and 95 percent of passengers are vaccinated. Blocking the industry’s return is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last month signed an executive order banning so-called vaccine passports, and this month signed legislation that makes it illegal for any business or industry to even ask whether any customer or passenger has been vaccinated.
The CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line is threatening to pull out of the Port of Miami and relocate elsewhere—including the Caribbean—if DeSantis doesn’t lift his ban. But DeSantis is effectively threatening to cut off the state’s nose to spite the federal government’s face, saying that “If you don’t let them sail from Florida, they’re going to sail from the Bahamas” while suggesting that the only way that ships will sail from Florida is if the CDC drops its guidelines. He also blamed the CDC for creating “deaths from despair, deaths from people who got involved with drugs and substance abuse or suicide” because their “livelihoods were shattered by what the CDC did,” saying that there were “larger implications than just cruise ships sailing or not” in letting health officials ensure cruise passengers are vaccinated.
“I’m calling it a high-stakes game of chicken,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told The Daily Beast. “It’s hard to believe that when push comes to shove, and the cruise industry has followed all the CDC guidelines, that he would stand in their way.”
The cruise industry is the economic lifeblood of South Florida. Miami-Dade just completed a brand new $263 million terminal for Norwegian, one of a half-dozen cruise lines that call Miami their home away from home. They have headquarters in foreign countries, and Cava, a lawyer herself, says this standoff with DeSantis could come down to lots of lawyering as to how far the DeSantis ban can reach ships sailing in foreign waters.
Cava is a Democrat and the county’s first woman to hold the job, but the bigger issue here is the ease with which Republicans like DeSantis cast aside their commitment to private enterprise when it fits their cultural agenda. If Norwegian pulled out of the port and others followed, the results would be “devastating,” says Cava.
The year before the COVID pandemic, the state accounted for 60.1 percent of all passenger embarkations in the U.S., according to an economic-impact report on the industry from Cruise Lines International Association. It channeled more than $9 billion in direct spending to the state and supported 159,000 jobs there, with total wages and salaries of $8.1 billion.
Yet DeSantis “doesn’t want anybody to ask who’s been vaccinated,” says Cava, even though “companies are all willing, they think it’s safe—and passengers would want it. We’ve vaccinated a couple of thousand crew to put the ships back in shape.”
Cava says it took months of back-and-forth with the CDC to lift the health agency’s “No Sail” order—before DeSantis weighed in with his objection, and ships have already resumed sailing from other parts of the world. “We’re losing business in South Florida when people fly to other places to take these cruises,” she says. With everyone remembering those terrible days early in the pandemic when cruise ships were like Petri dishes stranded offshore with passengers sickened by COVID, it took a while before the CDC fully recognized how transformational the vaccines could be for the industry.
Notably, Republican Sen. (and former Gov.) Rick Scott has raised no objection to the CDC plan, because it would get the industry going again with an achievable requirement of 98 percent fully vaccinated passengers. But how do you know? “You have to be able to ask them,” says Cava. And DeSantis, who sued the federal government over its original no-sail order and has put aside a quarter-billion dollars in federal relief funds for the industry, is rejecting the vaccine requirement as a supposed invasion of privacy and violation of personal choice and freedom.
That’s a political choice, Cava says, as “a certain percentage of people who are very anti- these protections view it as a matter of personal liberty and they like him creating these barriers—there are many others who would not cruise without these protections—and so he’s playing to his base. The governor has said he doesn’t want to put undue pressure on business or industry, but here he is doing the same thing. It sort of sounds like he got boxed into this situation. Maybe he’s happy with the situation. It’s hard to believe that when push comes to shove, and as the cruise industry has followed the CDC guidelines, that he would stand in their way.”
But so far, he is. Cava said she has not spoken to DeSantis directly about this, adding, “I should reach out to his office, but clearly he knows what he’s saying.”
This is not like pulling baseball’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta, a big decision but a one-off and thus a largely symbolic one. What Norwegian is contemplating is a major business decision with long-term implications and vast costs because the CEO can’t stand the heavy hand of DeSantis’ government.
It is bonkers for a Republican governor who claims to be a conservative dictating to private companies about what reasonable precautions they can ask passengers to take.
Republicans love to goad Democrats about being socialists, but “providing government assistance is not socialism. Socialism is the takeover of private industry,” says Matt Bennett with the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “DeSantis is requiring that private industry bend to his will, which is in the same neighborhood as socialism. And it’s so extreme that a major industry is thinking of pulling out of one of its most lucrative markets.”
Whatever it is, it’s not conservative. Conservative is what Biden is doing, saying to businesses that if you want a vaccine requirement, good luck with that, let the market decide. Government is not going to mandate one.
What DeSantis is doing is right-wing populism, appealing to the base’s basest instincts. Given the economic stakes for his state, perhaps he will be the one to yield in this game of chicken, but given the state of today’s GOP that’s not at all certain.
“Vaccines are bad, so a vaccine mandate is very bad,” says Bennett, explaining the Republican view behind DeSantis’ opposition. “He may be willing to take the economic hit for what he perceives as a win with the Trump base.”