Cruise industry lobbyists were heavily involved in crafting a bill that prevented Florida municipalities from placing restrictions on cruise ships docking at their ports, according to emails obtained by American Oversight.
The records revealed a March 2021 exchange between the office of Florida state Sen. Jim Boyd and the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) regarding legislation that was later updated to reflect the CLIA’s feedback prior to passage.
In November 2020, following that spring’s numerous Covid-19 outbreaks on cruise ships and amid growing concern over the health of coral reefs, residents of Key West voted to pass three referendums placing limitations on cruise ships docking at their seaports. These included placing caps on the capacity of cruise ships that can dock in Key West and on the number of passengers who can disembark, and prioritizing cruise lines with the best health records.
But in April 2021, the Florida Senate voted to pass S.B. 426, a bill that would void Key West’s measures and prevent other cities from taking similar actions. The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Jim Boyd.
The records obtained by American Oversight show that Boyd’s office received an email from CLIA in March 2021, forwarded by a Trump-connected lobbying firm, with notes about the draft legislation. According to the email, the association was concerned about a specific exemption in the bill allowing a municipality to block cruise traffic if the port was “physically unable” to accommodate ships “pursuant to applicable … laws or regulations.”
On March 9, CLIA’s senior vice president of government affairs, Michael McGarry, emailed representatives of lobbying firm Ballard Partners a note from CLIA’s counsel: “I think this Senate version is good and gets us what we want, with one relatively minor concern,” the note said. “The provision … could give rise to mischief. Will Key West claim that it is physically unable to accommodate ships that disembark more than 1400 [passengers] at a time because of Covid or other public health concerns? What does ‘physically unable’ mean? It’s a bit too open-ended in my opinion. Other than that, I think it works for us.” A representative of Ballard Partners then forwarded the email to Boyd’s office.
The section of the legislation to which CLIA objected was in the March 12 version of S.B. 426. But in the April 14 version, the bill was changed to read “except when the port, by virtue of the physical limitations of its docking, berthing, or navigational capabilities, is unable to accommodate a passenger cruise vessel pursuant to applicable federal or state laws or regulations.”
Ultimately, S.B. 426 did not pass the state House, but most of its text was incorporated into a companion bill, S.B. 1194, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 29. Unlike previous versions of the bill, S.B. 1194 did not contain any exemptions based on the physical limitations of the port.
According to Florida Politics, S.B. 426’s failure to pass the state House came from its apparent narrow targeting of the Key West referendums. S.B. 1194 resolved this issue by specifying that the preemption applies only to voter measures for all state ports, which raises questions about whether city authorities could still place limitations. In late November 2021, cruise ships returned to dock at Key West after 20 months of absence.
In April, after the Senate passed S.B. 426, the Miami Herald reported that Key West pier operator Mark Walsh, who opposed the referendums, had donated nearly $1 million to DeSantis between Feb. 28 and March 3. American Oversight filed records requests with the governor’s office, requesting communications with representatives of cruise industry interests. We received documents indicating that Walsh participated in a conference call with the governor’s office on Jan. 7, just over a month and a half prior to the donations.
American Oversight also obtained emails that shed light on the cruise industry’s response to the pandemic. The records include a document from December 2020 on how CLIA planned to avoid the spread of Covid-19 on its ships while continuing to operate. Kelly Craighead, the president and CEO of CLIA, stated in an email to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the guidelines were “crafted so as to not conflict in any way with CDC’s current or future requirements” and were intended for “areas where governments have not established their own requirements.”
In another email, Norwegian Cruise Lines President Frank Del Rio expressed frustration with the CDC’s new travel warning system, which in November 2020 was changed from a three-point scale to a four-point scale. Although the risk level was consistent, cruise ships were newly identified as level 4 instead of 3. On Nov. 3, Del Rio claimed to be “blindsided,” complained that the move was “targeting the cruise industry,” and accused the CDC of “kicking us while we’re down.”
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