Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio want to create a federal advisory panel to help the cruise industry identify, enact and promote health, safety, security, and logistical changes for cruise ships to set sail again.
The two Republicans announced Wednesday they are introducing a bill they call the Set Sail Safely Act, which would establish a federal Maritime Task Force. It would work with a private-sector advisory committee to address the changes needed for cruise lines and ports to resume operations.
Cruise lines have been under a federal no-sail order until Sept. 30, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last spring, cruise ships were the poster children for the emerging outbreaks of COVID-19 and the consequential economic collapse. The industry was among the first to shut down and the hardest hit, and may find the most difficult waters for a return.
Florida is the epicenter of the cruise industry, home to numerous American cruise line headquarters and the most departures of any location in the Western Hemisphere. Combined, ports in Jacksonville, Canaveral, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami launch more than 60 cruise ships.
“Over the past few months, I’ve had many conversations with leaders at Florida ports, federal agencies, and within the cruise industry about how to ensure the safety of passengers and employees,” Scott said in a news release. “As we work to solve the coronavirus and safely reopen our economy, this legislation will support the development of guidelines needed to ensure the safe resumption of our cruise lines and port operations.”
The task force’s impact might be more about reassuring the public than pushing any new changes in the cruise industry.
Most cruise ships are flagged and registered under different countries, so there is little American federal regulation. The Rubio-Scott bill does not speak to any regulation or enforcement.
Before the industry was shut down in mid-March, and even into April, the world watched one horror story after another play out on cruise ships that hosted numerous passengers sick with COVID-19 and a few onboard deaths from the virus, while some ships struggled even to find ports that would accept them.
The cruise industry vowed to enact sweeping changes in health and safety protocols during the shutdown.
Rubio said the bill would “provide a road map for cruise lines and port authorities to safely resume operations, allowing our valuable tourism economy, and the people it employs, to begin to recover.”
The bill would require several federal agencies, led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to work together with input from private sector stakeholders to develop a plan for the safe resumption of cruise line operations.
The Maritime Task Force would include representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, Department of State and the Federal Maritime Commission.
Private sector stakeholders would include representatives from the passenger cruise line industry, U.S. ports, commercial fishermen, small businesses, and health professionals.
The bill would create a timeline for task force meetings, recommendations, and implementation of the task force’s recommendations.
“The cruise industry is an important economic contributor in the United States, supporting nearly half a million U.S. jobs, and over 150,000 in Florida alone, prior to the pandemic,” Adam Goldstein, global chair of the Cruise Lines International Association, stated in the news release. “The Senators’ bill draws much-needed attention to the importance of strategic dialogue between appropriate federal agencies and a broad group of public and private sector stakeholders to safely advance a resumption of cruising in the U.S. that mirrors the gradual and successful restart of cruise operations in Europe.”
In Florida, at least 14 cruise lines operate at least 63 ships out of five ports. Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises (USA), and Disney Cruise Line, are headquartered in Florida.
In 2019, they carried more than 7.5 million people on cruise vacations that started in Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, Miami, or Tampa.
That made Florida the embarkation origin of 59% of all passengers who cruised from American ports, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Florida launched more people on cruises than New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, California, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii combined.
“We welcome the opportunity to engage in strategic discussions with our federal and industry partners to develop a plan for the safe resumption of passenger operations at Florida’s seaports,” stated Doug Wheeler, president of the Florida Ports Council.