The White House has blocked a new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep cruise ships docked until mid-February, a step that would have displeased the politically powerful tourism industry in the crucial swing state of Florida.
The current “no sail” policy is set to expire Wednesday. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC, had recommended the extension, worried that cruise ships could become viral hot spots, as they did at the beginning of the pandemic.
But at a meeting of the coronavirus task force Tuesday, Redfield’s plan was overruled, according to a senior federal health official who was not authorized to comment and so spoke on condition of anonymity. The administration will instead allow the ships to sail after Oct. 31, the date the industry had already agreed to in its own, voluntary plan. The rejection of the CDC’s plan was first reported by Axios.
Redfield, who has been scolded by President Donald Trump for promoting mask wearing and cautioning that vaccines won’t be widely available until next year, worried before the Tuesday decision that he might get fired and had considered resigning if he were required to oversee a policy that compromised public health, according to a senior administration official as well as a person close to Redfield.
The cruise ship industry has considerable political influence in Florida. The Cruise Lines International Association said that the industry generates $53 billion in economic activity. The Florida Ports Council said that state’s cruise industry, the largest in the nation, has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Republican politicians in Florida and cruise industry lobbyists have called for ending the no-sail order. "I urge the CDC not to extend or renew the ‘No Sail Order,’ " Carlos A. Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, said in a statement Saturday.
On Sept. 16, Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio proposed the Set Sail Safely Act, which would create a maritime task force to work on the logistical changes needed to allow the industry to resume operations safely.
“The Florida delegation is very supportive and is trying to work with the administration and the CDC to see what efforts we can do to get the industry up and operating,” said Michael Rubin, vice president of governmental affairs for the Florida Ports Council. “It’s still the only industry that’s not allowed to operate at the moment.”
The cruise industry association, which says it represents 95% of oceangoing passenger ship capacity globally, is seeking a gradual resumption of sailing, starting with voyages containing crew members posing as passengers. Its plan is based in large part on recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel, which was established by several of the major cruise lines and was led by Michael Leavitt, the former Utah governor and health secretary, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration. Some CDC representatives attended the panel’s meetings.
Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a former acting commissioner of the FDA, who serves on the Healthy Sail group, said it has recommended that cruise passengers be tested before arriving at the ship and then again before boarding.
“The one thing that you want to make sure of is that the virus doesn’t get on there in the first place,” Ostroff said.
Ostroff acknowledged that passengers who are exposed to the virus en route to the ship would not necessarily test negative but could be infectious. He also said that the group’s other recommendations, such as allowing fewer passengers, enforcing mask wearing and installing improved air filtration systems, aim to limit the spread of the virus on a ship should an infected passenger board.
Brian Morgenstern, the White House deputy press secretary, denied that the administration’s cruise ship plans were politically motivated. “The president, the vice president and the task force follow the science and data to implement policies that protect the public health and also facilitate the safe reopening of our country,” he said.
Redfield is in a precarious position after weeks of public confrontations with the White House.
On Friday, he told a colleague that he was concerned that Dr. Scott W. Atlas, one of Trump’s top coronavirus advisers, was providing the president with misleading information, according to an NBC reporter who overheard Redfield’s telephone conversation on a commercial airplane.
The incident followed Trump’s rebuke of the director earlier this month, after Redfield testified at a Senate hearing that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year and that masks were perhaps even more important than a vaccine for curbing the spread of the virus. Trump told reporters later that day that he believed the director had “made a mistake.” A vaccine would go “to the general public immediately,” the president claimed, and “under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said.”
The CDC under Redfield’s leadership has received harsh criticism from scientists about its handling of the pandemic, beginning with its botched rollout of testing kits in the spring. This month, The New York Times reported that political appointees in the health department had pushed through CDC guidelines — despite objections from the agency’s own scientists — saying that people without symptoms did not need to be tested for the coronavirus, even if they had close contact with an infected person. The agency then updated these guidelines to recommend testing, in line with public health experts.
Just a few days later, the agency quietly posted guidance on its website stating that the virus spreads mainly through droplets in the air — only to abruptly remove that language the next day. The agency said the document was posted prematurely and is still being vetted.
Redfield, trying to repair his agency’s reputation and restore public trust, did not want cruise ships to sail until the industry could prove they would not become floating petri dishes for the virus. The Diamond Princess cruise ship became one of the first examples of a coronavirus superspreading event this winter, when more than 700 of its 3,711 passengers and crew tested positive, and 14 died.
According to the CDC there were 2,973 of cruise-related cases of COVID-19 or COVID-like illness, and 34 deaths, from March 1 through July 10.