I was pretty discouraged when I saw Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ban businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers. This would mean cruise lines face up to $5,000 in fines for each passenger they ask. I fear that this policy will drag down an industry that’s already been treading water for 15 months. Everyone who works on a cruise ship — and, I’d bet, most passengers, too — want to know that the people onboard with us don’t pose an unnecessary risk to our health and safety. If cruise lines can’t protect the safety of passengers and crew and make people feel confident about booking their vacations, we’ll never get back to normal. Right now, I believe requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated is our best chance at returning to normalcy.
I’ve greatly respected DeSantis’s efforts to advocate for the cruise industry and keep Florida’s economy going during the pandemic. After my cruise contracts evaporated virtually overnight, I couldn’t find work in my home state: Massachusetts had banned indoor singing. After visiting a friend in Tampa in October, I was amazed to see performance venues open and holding auditions. I landed a role in a popular piano show three nights a week. That gig was my lifeline, and I ended up moving here. This was only possible because of Florida’s ability to set its own coronavirus restrictions.
But the state’s new policy hampers private businesses and overrides their rights. I don’t believe that anyone should be mandated to get the vaccine, but companies already have the right to set health standards for their employees: Even before the pandemic, I had to pass an extremely thorough seafarer medical evaluation, including records of other non-coronavirus vaccinations and vision and hearing tests, to work onboard. On each ship, there are strict health protocols in place. Upon embarking, I am required to undergo rigorous health and safety trainings and drills, as is every single crew member. Failing to report symptoms of illness is a fireable offense.
So I don’t believe it’s unreasonable for cruise lines to ask guests for proof of vaccination. Companies should get to decide which clients they will or won’t serve (unless they’re discriminating by race, gender, age, sexual identity, disability or other protected reasons). Unvaccinated customers present more of a risk than vaccinated ones.
When it comes to cruises, what happens in Florida does not stay in Florida. Every single Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean cruise docks in at least one foreign port. There’s no telling what unvaccinated guests may be exposed to in those ports, what risks they’ll pose to locals or what they’ll bring back with them.
Cruises also employ a huge number of crew members from all over the world, including countries without much vaccine access and where coronavirus cases have stayed high. These crew members are required to be vaccinated to work on board, so their personal risk of getting seriously ill is low. However, while the vaccines appear to prevent people from transmitting the virus, they may still worry about spreading the virus to unvaccinated loved ones and their communities — especially in places that don’t have the same health care infrastructure or access that we have in the States. My co-workers already sacrifice so much by leaving their families and homes for up to nine months at a time. They shouldn’t have to fear coming to work or returning home.
Vaccine requirements make sense for our industry: People live in very close quarters on ships. For some travelers, that’s part of the appeal — the opportunities to gather with, and befriend, strangers during a voyage. My job involves a lot of close contact: I play music in crowded bars and packed auditoriums at night, and I’m expected to be “on” and presentable during the day, mingling with guests over meals or in other common spaces. Vacation is about relaxation: It’s hard to imagine customers signing up for a cruise if they’re worried about viral spread and can’t fully enjoy the ship’s amenities, like gathering in a restaurant or a nightclub or laying maskless by the pool.
With everything that’s happened during the pandemic, cruise lines have even more reason to make customers feel confident about traveling with them. Some of the most publicized early coronavirus outbreaks, in February and March 2020, happened on cruise ships. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a No Sail order and, in the fall, issued a report blaming the industry for the widespread transmission of the virus. Now, with vaccinations rising, and case counts dropping, cruise lines have been following new CDC guidelines that will permit them to set sail — including a requirement that 98 percent of crew and 95 percent of passengers be fully vaccinated to board a cruise.
Florida’s policy clashes with those preparations — and with federal guidance — and it may end up hurting the state. In 2019, the cruise industry contributed almost 159,000 jobs and $8.1 billion in income to Florida, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Already, some cruise lines have said that they’ll shift voyages to other states or the Caribbean to avoid DeSantis’s ban.
I’ve worked on cruises whose itineraries brought us to Australia during its worst-ever wildfire season, Hawaii during a hurricane, New Zealand during deadly volcano eruptions and Alaska during record-breaking forest fires. Each time, I felt safely insulated — even weirdly dissociated — from the world while onboard the ships where I live and work. To me, cruises have generally felt like an escape from even the most dire circumstances. I have always felt safe, and I’m proud that we have been able to guarantee guests that same sense of security; regardless of the scenario, we are equipped and prepared. But this pandemic has been the exception. If the government prevents ships from taking the proper safety precautions, the inevitable reality is either a coronavirus outbreak or a further delay in the return to sailing.
Performing on cruise ships was a dream come true for me — a chance to see the world while doing what I loved most. “Ship life” is an experience almost impossible to explain to those on the outside. I didn’t just work onboard. This is where I lived. This is where my friends were. This is where my life was. The people I met onboard, both passengers and fellow crew, weren’t just customers and co-workers — they were my neighbors, the people I spent holidays and birthdays with, the shoulders I cried on.
I, like thousands of others, fled to Florida during the pandemic to dodge the stringent restrictions that were preventing me from pursuing my career and any sense of normal life. Now, I just hope Florida’s new policies won’t stand in the way of my colleagues and me getting back to work — and the lives we’ve had to put on hold for the past 15 months.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.