Cruise Industry Recovery In Jacksonville And Florida Likely To Be Long Haul

“Significant” passenger cruise operations might not return to Florida waters for another year or longer as fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues, according to a port-industry lobbying group.

Michael Rubin, Florida Ports Council vice president of governmental affairs, told members of the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday that cruise lines are working to meet an “onerous” list of requirements from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and simply hope to have some vessels operating at half capacity this summer.

“I'm not sure we'll have significant cruise operations until perhaps next year and even beyond that,” Rubin said. 

“Some of the smaller luxury liners … may not be operating till further than that, until there's actual vaccines available around the world. We are concerned. We’re hopeful that they'll allow them to operate at least half capacity here maybe in April, maybe in June. Hopefully, before that timeframe, because this is really, really troubling.”

A Wednesday check of Carnival’s website shows the Jacksonville-based Ecstasy cruise ship currently isn’t scheduled to sail again until January 2022.

Rubin said cruise lines plan to bring crew members back early to meet quarantine requirements, but issues have not been settled about passengers getting on and off ships while visiting foreign ports.

The federal health and safety protections for crew members and passengers include building onboard laboratory capacity to test passengers and conducting “simulated voyages” to look at the ability of cruise lines to mitigate COVID-19 risks on ships.

The Florida Ports Council, which continues to push for seaports to be included in federal pandemic relief efforts, has estimated that the economic impact of COVID-19 on the 15 ports in Florida has reached $22 billion, cutting $775 million in tax revenue and affecting 170,000 jobs.

“That is a significant impact on Florida,” Rubin said. “Sixty percent of cruise activity occurs in Florida.”

Rubin said impacts vary by port, noting that the Port of Panama City has seen an uptick in cargo operations possibly from an increase in shipments involving Mexico. However, Port Canaveral, where 70 percent of operations involve cruise ships, the cargo work is simply “keeping them from not having to get really desperate about reserves.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions continue after problems last year that drew international attention as the pandemic took hold.

“As you know, there was some high-profile incidents of passengers trying to get off and a few deaths out there,” Rubin recalled of the shutdown of the industry last spring. “So, we're living with those high-profile incidents, and it can't seem to get past it. … I think all of our ports and the cruise lines are trying to work with the CDC to say, ‘Look, we're gonna have protocols, we’ll have masks, we’ll sail at half capacity so we can quarantine people if they need to be quarantined.’”

- WJCT News' Bill Bortzfield contributed to this report.