Cruise lines operating from the Port of Galveston appear poised to continue with strict vaccine requirements, despite a new executive order banning private entities in Texas from requiring employees and consumers to be inoculated against COVID-19.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order prohibiting any “entity” in Texas from compelling anybody to be vaccinated, including an employee or consumer.
The executive order came about a month after President Joe Biden announced a plan to broadly require either vaccination or frequent testing of about 100 million U.S. workers.
Biden ordered the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make rules mandating all employers of more than 100 people require workers to either be inoculated or be tested for COVID weekly.
A CHANGE OF STANCE
Abbott previously had supported allowing businesses to create their own vaccination rules. The governor recently had been taking criticism over that stance from Republican primary challengers, including former state Sen. Don Huffines, however.
In Galveston, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises have required nearly all of their employees and most of their customers to be vaccinated since they returned to business in early July. Disney Cruise Line is planning to return to Galveston on Nov. 19 and similarly is telling passengers they will be required to be vaccinated.
None of the companies responded to a request for comment Tuesday.
The Port of Galveston, however, said it had no reason to think the new executive order applied to the cruise lines.
“We have no information indicating any intent to change current cruise operations, which the governor’s office approved prior to the restart of passenger cruise operations in July,” said Tony Brown, the port’s attorney. “Cruise operations are continuing to grow back as a major economic driver for our community, our region and our state.”
There had been no communications between the governor’s office and the port as of Tuesday afternoon, Brown said.
An Abbott spokeswoman in a statement responded to questions about whether the new mandate applied to cruise ships by pointing to the first part of the executive order — “no entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual.”
Abbott’s aim was to protect people from losing their jobs to federal overreach.
“The Biden Administration has left Texans in the impossible position of having to choose between providing for their families or being fired for not getting the COVID vaccine because of their religious belief, medical condition or personal conscience,” Renae Eze, press secretary for Abbott, said.
“They have left employers with the unfair choice of either violating federal regulations or losing their valued employees. The governor’s executive order will help protect Texans from having to make that choice.”
Abbott threatens $1,000 fines for violations of the executive order. He also asked the legislators to pass a law banning mandates among private businesses.
Huffines, who is running in next year’s Republican primary as a more conservative alternative to Abbott, said a law should have been proposed earlier this year.
“If I were governor, we would have already banned vaccine mandates in the regular session,” Huffines said. “Any businesses, including cruise lines, who attempted to defy the law would be prosecuted accordingly. I will always be a vigilant defender of Texans’ liberties.”
HISTORY OF EXCEPTIONS
Abbott and lawmakers previously had carved out exceptions to COVID orders and laws that applied to cruise lines and other businesses.
Abbott in April issued an order stating government entities were banned from requiring vaccine passports but said that didn’t apply to the cruise lines operating out of the public port.
In June, he signed a stricter law prohibiting private businesses from requiring vaccine passports. But the law included exceptions for companies that required vaccine passports because of federal mandate.
At the time, cruise companies were required to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-issued mandates, including a vaccine requirement. In July, however, a federal judge in Florida issued an injunction against the CDC, stopping it from enforcing its rules.
The judge’s ruling was part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Florida against the CDC. Texas joined that lawsuit in May, making the argument the agency’s rules were harmful to the Texas economy.
Since July, the CDC has said its rules are considered voluntary and non-binding. Still, the companies have continued to mandate vaccines from most of their customers. Last week, Carnival announced it would extend its vaccine requirements into at least February 2022.
It’s unclear whether Abbott, his opponents or others will take much notice of or have much concern about flouting of the new mandate.
Businesses generally seem to like some definite direction from the government about what its rules should be regarding vaccines, said Steve Werner, the chairman of the department of management and leadership at the University of Houston’s Bauer College. Having an anti-mandate mandate at least gives human resources departments cover for making their own decisions, he said.
For cruise companies, there might be a greater incentive to keep the vaccine mandate, especially if the companies feel their businesses are put at greater risk if an outbreak occurs on a ship. The benefit of requiring vaccinations might, for now, outweigh any punishment the state creates, Werner said.
“Everybody knows this is all in flux,” Werner said. “It’s really not clear what the legalities are. With every new law that’s passed there are lawsuits, and then it goes through the system. Until the Supreme Court rules on something, it’s never a done deal.
“I think the bottom line is that organizations will say, ‘If we want to, we’ll follow’, but I don’t think they’re entirely fearful that there’s going to be great consequences right away.”