Cruise lines see vaccine requirements as their quickest path back to sailing from the United States. But Florida, home to the largest operators and busiest cruise ports in the world, has passed a law saying those companies are not allowed to ask passengers for proof of vaccination status.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told cruise companies that vaccines are a fast track to resuming; with 95 percent of passengers and crew vaccinated, lines do not have to run test cruises before they can take paying passengers out. Cruising has been banned from U.S. ports since March of 2020.

The Fix’s Peter Stevenson analyzes the emerging political fight over vaccine “passports” and how it is becoming the latest pandemic flash point. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) sued the CDC last month over the ban and has continued to challenge the agency’s authority. After Celebrity Cruises announced this week that it had approval to sail in late June with vaccinated passengers, a representative for the governor warned of potentially “millions of dollars in fines” for violating the law.

Another company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, has threatened to pull ships from the state if its ships are not allowed to require vaccinations.

So who will get their way? Legal experts are betting on the cruise lines — and calling out Florida’s governor for political posturing.

“Political grandstanding 100 percent,” Miami-based maritime attorney Mike Winkleman said. “This is not driven from a motivation of safety. If the motivation were safety, you would say, ‘Of course everyone has to be vaccinated.’ It’s kowtowing to a small minority that are a really vocal base for him.”

Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University, called the state’s position “amazing on so many levels.”

She said the federal government has the authority to regulate international commerce, or who comes into and out of the country. And federal law, she said, trumps state law when there’s a conflict — though an agency’s actions can be challenged in court.

“But the idea that the federal government in general doesn’t have the authority to set the conditions for cruise ships and that Florida somehow has more authority over who comes in and out of the ports, that’s really an odd one,” she said.

Jim Walker, a maritime attorney who runs the Cruise Law News blog, agreed that the state does not have jurisdiction to regulate the cruise lines.

“To see DeSantis come out and to pull this stunt to me just reeks of political buffoonery,” he said.

Walker called the vaccine law “singularly the greatest impediment to the resumption of cruising in the state of Florida.”

“It’s not the evil federal government’s unreasonable health protocols, it’s not the CDC’s protocols or mask mandates or so forth,” he said. “But it is what DeSantis is doing that’s kind of spoiling the pot.”

But DeSantis, who is seen as a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, has argued it’s the CDC that is overstepping its bounds; lawyers for the state and CDC have been sent to mediation in the suit filed last month. Spokeswoman Christina Pushaw emphasized that there’s no federal requirement for a vaccine passport, and said the public health agency did not have authority to enforce nonexistent laws or make up laws. She pushed back at talk of politics.

“There is nothing ‘political’ about protecting individuals’ rights to medical privacy,” she said in an email.

At a news conference earlier this month, DeSantis told reporters that he wanted cruise lines to operate and be able to make decisions about how they want to handle health and safety rules — within certain parameters.

'That obviously is within the context of Florida policy that respects the medical privacy of all Floridians,” he said. At the time, he said even if some people were okay with the idea of having to prove that they were vaccinated to take a cruise, “it will not stop at that.”

“The minute they start doing this, they will continue to do it,” he warned. “It will expand.”

On Friday, he continued to insist that the law that prohibits companies from requiring proof of vaccination would apply to cruise lines when it goes into effect July 1. DeSantis signed an executive order banning “vaccine passports” that is in effect until then.

“You don’t pass laws and then not enforce it against giant corporations; it doesn’t work that way,” he said at a news conference. “Everybody is equal before the law.”

Celebrity has said it is “working on a path forward with the governor’s office.”

Attorneys who watch — and sue — cruise lines for a living said they expect sailings with vaccine requirements to go forward once they are approved by the CDC, regardless of the state’s stance.

“I’ve been saying it’s a game of chicken and the cruise lines are not going to blink for a second in this game,” Winkleman said. “They’re going to reopen full steam ahead.”

He said if they face fines — potentially $5,000 per violation — he would expect them to challenge those penalties in court.

But Winkleman said he thinks it’s more likely that some resolution will be reached during mediation proceedings between the CDC and state. Walker also believes there will be some kind of truce.

“I think they’re going to set sail and I think they’re going to work on trying to make a deal with DeSantis where they carve out some exception,” Walker said.

Pushaw, the DeSantis spokeswoman, said the governor’s office was confident that the mediation process would “result in a path forward for cruises to set sail from Florida in compliance with our state laws.”

Parmet called it “deliciously ironic” that DeSantis — who has taken a pro-business, anti-lockdown stance through much of the pandemic — now wants to dictate what businesses can do. She said it’s in the best interest of the cruise lines to assure passengers that they will be safe.

“A lot of people don’t believe in vaccinations — too many — but obviously a majority of people do, and they don’t want to be on a cruise ship worrying about the person who sneezes next to them,” she said. “No cruise ships wants to be the next Diamond Princess.”