Carnival Cruise Line announced Monday it would require its passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to sail on upcoming trips from Galveston might have put the company at odds with a new state law.
Carnival said it would require passengers sailing on July cruises from the Port of Galveston to show they were fully vaccinated at least 14 days before their planned trip.
But soon after the proclamation, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted he was about to sign a law, Senate Bill 968, that prohibits businesses from asking customers to show proof of vaccination to receive service in Texas.
Abbott’s proclamation possibly could disrupt plans for cruises to return to Galveston after being shut down for 16 months. But it’s unclear whether Abbott’s proclamation goes as far as his Twitter message implied it did.
Just before noon Monday, Carnival officially announced the first detailed and long-awaited plans about its return to cruising in Galveston. The company previously had announced plans to set sail from the port on July 3 but had released few details about what those cruises would look like.
But on Monday, for the first time, the cruise line said it would require passengers on its U.S. cruises to be vaccinated.
“We appreciate the progress and support for our U.S. restart from the CDC and other key federal agencies; however, the current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very difficult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy said.
“As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”
400 CANCELED CRUISES
Duffy credited Abbott and Galveston officials for working with the company to help hasten the cruise restart process.
Cruise ships haven’t sailed from Galveston since March 2020 because of restrictions imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The restrictions have resulted in nearly 400 cruises from Galveston being canceled. Officials have estimated the cancellations cost the port $40 million in revenue.
Recent weeks have shown signs that the long wait for a return was coming to an end. Cruise ships have returned to Galveston to pick up crew members and to get them vaccinated. The CDC and local health officials have given preliminary approvals to health safety plans that outline what would be done in case a COVID outbreak occurs on a ship.
Up until Monday, the only mention of Abbott in the return process was he might visit the island port to celebrate the first cruise out Texas on Fourth of July weekend.
CHANGE IN PLANS
Beyond Senate Bill 968, things got more complicated Monday. Carnival’s announcement, and Abbott’s response, represented shifting stances from both sides on vaccines and cruises.
Carnival had appeared to be moving toward a plan that wouldn’t strictly require mass vaccinations of passengers.
Port of Galveston officials said Carnival intended to gain approval to cruise by participating in simulated voyages. The test cruises, if successful, would mean Carnival wouldn’t need as many as 95 percent of its passengers to prove they were vaccinated.
Carnival officials had said vaccination hurdle would be too high a bar to clear because not every passenger it serves would be eligible for vaccinations.
It was unclear Monday whether Carnival intended to go through with the test cruise plan, while also requiring vaccinated passengers on its earliest post-pandemic cruises.
Carnival Cruise Line didn’t respond to questions about simulated cruises or about whether its policy would mean people younger than age 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated, would be prohibited from July sailings.
As for Abbott, the new state law takes a harsher stance on so-called vaccine passports than the governor previously had indicated.
Abbott’s comment was made after an editor from The Blaze, a conservative news website, flagged an article about Carnival’s return plans and tweeted at Abbott, asking him why he was “allowing Carnival to sail out of Galveston and push vaccine passports.”
In April, Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting government entities, and private entities that receive state funds, from requiring people to show proof of vaccination to receive services.
At the time, Abbott’s office said the executive order wasn’t meant to interfere with private business.
“Governor Abbott respects our state’s business community and does not believe government should unnecessarily interfere with the free market,” said Abbott press secretary Renae Eze in April.
But the law Abbott referenced Monday goes further than his executive order. Senate Bill 968 states a Texas business “may not require a customer to provide any documentation certifying the customer’s COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery on entry to, to gain access to, or to receive service from the business.” The bill was authored by state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from Victoria.
If a company breaks the law, it becomes ineligible to receive grants or enter into contracts paid with state funds, according to the bill text. The bill also allows state agencies to require compliance with the law as a condition of receiving a license, permit or other state authorization necessary for conducting business.
Carnival receives mixed beverage and catering licenses from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, according to state records.
In that way, Texas’ law differed from a similar ban on vaccine passports signed into law in Florida in May. In that state, cruise operators can be fined $5,000 each time they require proof of vaccination for their services.
Some cruise companies have objected to the Florida law. In May, the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines implied the company might leave Florida because of the law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was working to create a workaround in the law to appease the cruise companies, according to more recent reports.
It’s unclear whether the Texas penalty would matter to Carnival. A company official also said it was unclear whether the law Abbott referenced actually would apply to the cruise industry.
Senate Bill 968 includes a loophole that states the policy isn’t meant to stop a business from screening and implementing infection-control protocols that are in accordance with federal law to protect public health.
“We are evaluating the legislation recently signed into law in Texas regarding vaccine information,” Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said. “The law provides exceptions for when a business is implementing COVID protocols in accordance with federal law, which is consistent with our plans to comply with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.”
In a statement late Monday, Kolkhorst said she thought Carnival would change its policy.
“Having had many inquires about Carnival Cruise Lines sailing out of Texas, I am confident that like in Florida, Carnival will allow all to sail on cruises from Texas, regardless of their vaccination status,” Kolkhorst said in a statement. “SB 968 still allows for health screenings such as temperature checks if a company chooses.”
Carnival had previously announced hopes to launch the Carnival Horizon cruise ship from Miami on July 4 but was still working with Florida officials and the CDC to set a return date.
Royal Caribbean Cruises, the other major cruise line to operate out of Galveston, has announced plans to return to Galveston in August. Royal Caribbean has said it won’t require guests to be vaccinated on the relaunch of its cruises.