(12:40 p.m. EDT) -- A summer restart of cruising from the U.S. moved a step closer this week as a hearing on a federal lawsuit against the CDC filed by Florida, and joined by Alaska and Texas, moved into its third day.
The day after a federal judge heard arguments in Florida's request for an injunction against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he felt positive that cruise ships could start sailing from Florida ports by the summer.
“If we are successful in the courts, I’m willing to bet anyone that people are going to want to cruise from the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a Thursday news conference in Ormond Beach.
"We had a great hearing I think, by and large, reports I heard in Federal Court yesterday,” DeSantis said. "We think that we got our points across, we think the judge was receptive. I mean, we’ll see what happens."
In separate developments, cruise lines met last week with CDC after the agency released its guidance, seeking clarification on, among other things, what the rules are for an American cruise restart for ships that agree to sail with vaccinated passengers and crew. Those meetings continue this week.
Harry Sommer, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, said the injunction is awarded, the cruise line would push for a restart in Alaska in August.
Since Sommer spoke to Cruise Critic, a bill which could rescue the Alaska season passed its first hurdle on the way to being signed into law by President Joe Biden.
If Alaska can't happen, due to Canada's current ban on cruise ships and ongoing negotiations, Norwegian "would happily restart in other places in this country as well," he added. Hawaii, where NCL operates Pride of America, would be on the drawing board as well as other ports.
"We have ships that we could start up from various ports in Florida, Miami, Port Canaveral, Tampa, and also other ports nearby like New Orleans. We have lots of options in front of us for an August restart," Sommer said.
Norwegian is the only major U.S. line that has committed to sailing in the U.S. with a requirement that 100 percent of passengers and crew be vaccinated, a plan that officials said would be in place through October.
That plan is in direct contradiction with a law signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banning vaccine requirements for businesses in the Sunshine State. While the Florida market is the largest and most lucrative for cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings President and CEO Frank Del Rio said in an earnings call last week that the line would go elsewhere if Florida continued to take a hard line against vaccine requirements.
Sommer said that in meetings with the CDC last week and again this week, Norwegian and other cruise lines are seeking to clarify what comes after the agency's orders that were issued last week, which include requirements for mask wearing, social distancing and "bubble" shore excursions, but don't seem to distinguish between ships with vaccinated passengers and crew and those without. He said many of those rules may be irrelevant to Norwegian, given the line's vaccine stance.
"Our big push now with the CDC is when can we understand the rest of the rules for Phase 3 so we can have a definitive date when we can a definitive date where we can restart in the U.S.," Sommer said. "If we got the Phase 3 rules this week and they were workable, we would be happy to restart in Alaska in August."
He added, "I think the CDC needs to clearly hear that Phase 3 comes out really soon, certainly before the end of May but even sooner that that if possible -- or there's no Alaska for this upcoming season."
Alaska's Inside Passage towns have borne the brunt of the ban on cruising, and many businesses that rely on tourism worry they will not survive another year without the ships. While small cruise ships have begun their 2021 season in Alaska, it's not nearly enough to make up the deficit. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has pledged $10 million to support Alaska ports, including Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Hoonah (Icy Strait Point), Seward and Sitka.
Besides getting movement from the CDC, Alaska cruises have another hurdle to overcome before becoming a reality -- either getting a waiver of the Passenger Vessel Services Act or approval from Canada to stop there. Currently Transport Canada has banned cruises through February 2022.
"There are many options for us to do an Alaska cruise... .We are working on all of them," Sommer said, adding that the Alaska congressional delegation has helped with the Canadian government. "We are talking with them. ... Until I know otherwise, I am going to keep on trying."
Sommer said the cruise lines also asked the CDC whether there would be different rules on shore excursions in U.S. ports, where the COVID-19 vaccine is readily available, as opposed to foreign ports. Last week's rules limit port exploration to cruise line-organized shore excursions.
He said cruise lines have not yet submitted to the CDC required port agreements that cover local health and safety protocols, but that Norwegian hoped to do so in the next week or two. "The Alaska ones are likely going to be at the front of this," he said.
Reflecting on last week's guidance, he said what the CDC will further require is key to an August restart.
"Really the big obstacle in front of us is getting complete Phase 3 guidance, which we have not yet gotten. If Phase 2B is any indication of what Phase 3 guidance is going to be like, we still have a little bit of a road ahead of us."
When asked about an August restart, the CDC said "The CDC is committed to working with the cruise industry and seaport partners to resume cruising following the phased approach outlined in the CSO. This goal aligns with the prospective resumption of passenger operations in the United States by mid-summer, expressed by many major cruise ship operators and travelers."
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) put out a statement supporting the cruise industry's negotiations.
“Due in large part to the successful rollout of vaccines and guidance from the CDC regarding safety protocols, U.S. consumer confidence in travel has increased, signaling the potential for economic growth to the severely hit Travel & Tourism sector within the country. While many industry partners are beginning to see signs of relief, we must pay attention to the significant role the U.S. cruise industry plays in the country’s financial recovery and the reinstatement of American jobs on both a state and national level," WTTC President and CEO Gloria Guevara said in a statement.
"The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) welcomes the efforts made by the CDC to permit cruise ships to safely set sail again and calls for a clearer pathway forward that would allow for Americans to enjoy the experience of cruising by this summer. With ships already planning itineraries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Caribbean, the U.S. Travel & Tourism sector, as well as many cruisers, risk the chance of falling behind the cruise industry’s rebound, and delaying the recovery of millions of jobs, if clear and manageable health protocols are not defined.”