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DeSantis-CDC Cruise Line Fight Proves Vaccine Passport Bans Need Cultural Support


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can’t fight the culture war by himself. The latest gossip that he may be working out a compromise with the cruise industry over his vaccine passport ban indicates that, while essential, conservative legislation isn’t enough to protect American liberties and values; it must also be allied with a strong defense on the cultural front.

After DeSantis signed legislation barring companies from requiring COVID-19 “vaccine passports,” some in the cruise industry complained the ban would force them to contradict guidance from the federal Center for Disease Control. The current CDC regulations recommend that 95 percent of cruise passengers be vaccinated. Frank Del Rio, the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, has threatened to move Norwegian’s ships out of Florida, despite Florida ports accounting for around 60 percent of American cruise ship departures.

DeSantis is spearheading a lawsuit against the CDC over its regulations, which was filed in April and is in mediation this week. “We’re [suing the CDC] because it obviously has hurt our state,” said DeSantis on Friday. “But it’s a larger issue than just the cruises. You cannot have some bureaucracy — that does not have the legal authority to do this — claim an emergency and shut down commerce.”

“I am confident: we will win the case,” DeSantis added in Friday’s press conference in Lakeland. But while the lawsuit awaits a decision, Forbes claimed on Sunday that DeSantis’ office is designing a compromise to allow an exemption for cruise ships. A recording shared with Forbes from a cruise blog appeared to reveal Dondra Ritzenthaler, a senior VP at Celebrity Cruises, “outlining how DeSantis is working with the largest cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line — to find a workaround.”

“We’re ironing out a statement that will articulate how cruising will be different than [being] in the state,” Ritzenthaler said. By defining being onboard a cruise ship as being in “international waters,” she continued, DeSantis could still say “that people in Florida will not have to show vaccination proof to go to bars and restaurants and Walmart and Target, but how cruising is a little bit different.”

DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, told The Federalist no one from DeSantis’s office was on the phone call, and there is no indication that the call between travel agents and cruise executives reflects the position of the governor’s office. “Framing this as ‘DeSantis vs. cruise lines’ is inaccurate,” she said. “The obstacle is the CDC creating this coercive guidance.” She also noted the ban on vaccine passports doesn’t restrict companies from requiring other safety measures.

The Forbes article also cited a letter from the Florida Department of Health to cruise lines, in which the state’s surgeon general Scott Rivkees said “the Department’s permission is not required for your company to resume operations.” While Forbes framed the letter as “telling [cruise lines] they could go directly to the CDC for permission to sail,” Pushaw explained the governor’s office “never indicated that the cruise ships will be able to deviate from state law.” Rather, “the letter reaffirms that Florida is committed to allowing the cruise industry to resume — without mandating vaccine passports.”

The CDC’s recommendations do not have the force of law, as they are not passed by Congress. Americans are free to disregard anything the CDC says. The catch is that for institutions and businesses, following CDC guidance can help protect from lawsuits and provide a shield against public opposition to following CDC recommendations.

If the results of the lawsuit between DeSantis and the CDC do force a compromise, it will reflect the need to address political issues on corporate and cultural fronts and not merely legislative. DeSantis has been proactive in supporting conservative causes, from working to ban critical race theory in public schools to signing a law that will fine Big Tech companies for unfairly censoring Floridian social media users.

But fighting for freedom of speech, freedom to make your own medical decisions, or an education system that teaches kids to be proud of their country can’t just be done entirely through politics. Contrary to former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s suggestion on Thursday that “we conservatives have got to be careful not to get caught up in every little cultural battle,” the cultural battles are at least as important as the legislative ones.

Conservative leaders like DeSantis need support — and that includes holding megacorporations from Twitter and Facebook to cruise lines accountable when they seek to impose on basic American freedoms. It also means engaging culturally, calling out evil and abuse from the local to the national level. People who want to take rides on cruise lines need to communicate to cruise companies that a vaccine passport ban will keep them off the ships. And every American needs to raise his or her voice to local and state authorities opposing vaccine passports, regardless of whether they are imposed by business or government.

Attempting to dunk on DeSantis’ vaccine passport ban, NBC News’ Alex Seitz-Wald shows just how out of touch the corporate media is. “The GOP…has pursued cultural fights that roil its base at the expense of traditional conservative values, like free-market capitalism,” Seitz-Wald wrote on Monday, “with DeSantis…and others picking fights with companies that they say undermine American values.”

Such a line woefully misunderstands the culture war. While conservatives generally support free-market principles, allowing giant international companies to step into the role of tyrant and restrict our freedoms was never a “traditional conservative value.” Traditional conservatism has never celebrated unlimited freedom to engage in any transaction; on the contrary, its heroes like Edmund Burke have always recognized the necessity of culture to the health of any society, especially a democratic one.

DeSantis is one of too few political leaders on the offensive in protecting those conservative values, both political and cultural. But as the fight over vaccine passports shows, people like DeSantis need allies. These issues aren’t just legislative; every American has a vested interest in addressing the cultural implications of political battles.