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Cruise Lines Are Getting Antsy To Set Sail

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After being shut down for more than a year, there are signs cruise ships may soon resume sailing from U.S. ports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says companies that comply with new guidelines may head out as early as mid-July. NPR's Greg Allen reports that this decision comes after months of lobbying, letters and lawsuits by the cruise industry and its supporters.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At the Port of Miami, things are quiet. Cruise ships are docked, but just for servicing - not for passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line is building a new terminal here, but it's not clear when the company can use it. After a year in which ships remain docked while the company lost some $4 billion, CEO Frank Del Rio is angry.

FRANK DEL RIO: We no longer are in control of our business or our industry; the government is. It's outrageous, just outrageous.

G ALLEN: Several months ago, the CDC replaced its outright ban on cruises from U.S. ports with something called a conditional sail order. It's requiring companies to build labs on its ships for COVID testing and adopt other safeguards, like having agreements in place with local health authorities in all ports. The CDC calls it a phased plan for resuming cruises. They have, for example, allowed companies that carry 250 passengers or fewer to set sail. But the big cruise lines complain that although they're adopting the safeguards, there's still no timeline for when they can actually restart. A trade group says the shutdown has cost the industry some $17 billion in direct costs and affected more than 100,000 workers.

In Miami, Torin Ragin heads the International Longshoremen's Association local. He says some of his 800 members have seen their hours and wages drop over the last year by more than 80%.

TORIN RAGIN: This pandemic just came out of nowhere, hit us like a ton of bricks. To be 14, 15 months in and still not being able for our members to work these cruise vessels that mean so much to us has been devastating.

G ALLEN: Now that vaccines are widely available, cruise lines believe it's safe to resume sailings from U.S. ports, but first, they have to convince the CDC. Although they've been shut down here, companies have been offering cruises in Asia and Europe since last year, Del Rio says, without significant problems.

DEL RIO: Almost half a million people have cruised since last July and using a lot fewer protocols - without vaccines, mind you - compared to where we are today. So there's just no excuse, no reason to continue to keep the cruise industry tied to the pier.

G ALLEN: There are signs of progress. This week, the CDC agreed that vaccinating all passengers and crew will allow cruises to restart sometime this summer. In a letter to cruise lines, the CDC said it will speed up the deliberations on approving companies' restart plans. Joe Allen, an environmental health expert at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has studied the outbreaks on cruise ships last year, including the Diamond Princess, where more than 700 were infected and 14 people died.

JOE ALLEN: And CDC, in my view, was right to move cautiously, and phased approaching is correct. It's hard to imagine the CDC prioritizing cruise ships right now when we still have some schools that are closed.

G ALLEN: It's not just cruise lines pressuring the CDC. Florida and Alaska recently filed a lawsuit against the agency, asking for an immediate end to the cruise ban. At the same time, Norwegian and other cruise lines have begun offering cruises that originate in Bermuda, Barbados and other ports in the Caribbean. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says that's taking jobs away from his state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: People are going to cruise one way or another. It's a question is - are we going to do it out of Florida, which is the No. 1 place to do it in the world, or are they going to be doing it out of the Bahamas or other location?

G ALLEN: At his news conference announcing the lawsuit, DeSantis was asked about an executive order he signed banning companies from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination. He confirmed it would apply to cruise lines. Here's Frank Del Rio.

DEL RIO: That's a little fly in the ointment, I have to admit to you.

G ALLEN: It's one more hurdle cruise lines will have to cross as they look for a way to restart.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF FKJ'S "BETTER GIVE U UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.