WASHINGTON — American cruise ships that have been stuck in port for more than a year could be “sailing by midsummer,” provided they can meet safety guidelines by then, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Friday afternoon.
That assurance is unlikely to satisfy a $55.5 billion industry that believes it has been unfairly maligned in the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Florida is suing the federal government to allow ships to immediately set sail from the state’s ports, signaling that the issue could emerge as a political challenge for the Biden administration, much as reopening schools has.
Buttigieg was at the White House to sell the administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, of which he is expected to be a primary pitchman. But he also took questions on other matters, including the fate of Boeing’s troubled 737 Max jet and the future of the cruise industry.
“I certainly care a lot about seeing the cruise sector thrive,” the former South Bend, Ind., mayor said. But, he added, there are “gates” for operators “to get through” before they can get an “anchors aweigh” from the federal government. Cruise operators say those gates are too heavy and have been too slow to open.
The coronavirus first became a concern for many Americans when it broke out aboard the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships in January and February 2020.
Cruise ships came under a no-sail order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 14, 2020. That order was extended by then-President Donald Trump, and modified to a conditional sailing order in October.
The current order outlines detailed safety precautions that cruise operators have to take before conducting “simulation” cruises to see if those precautions are effective. Only after that can they begin to sail with passengers again. When that will be is unclear.
Summer is the most popular season for cruising, and cruise ship operators had hoped that the availability of vaccines, combined with a deeper understanding of how the coronavirus does and does not spread, would permit them to resume sailing once again.
That hasn’t happened, though, leading to mounting frustrations. After the Biden administration updated the sailing order earlier this month, a cruise industry trade association deemed the new guidance “disappointing,” “unduly burdensome” and “largely unworkable,” grousing that the administration’s continued caution seemed to “reflect a zero-risk objective rather than the mitigation approach to COVID that is the basis for every other US sector of our society.”
That same trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association, called for a “phased resumption of cruise operations as quickly as possible.”
Asked during the press briefing why no similar restrictions hindered airlines, Buttigieg said that “airlines have one safety profile; cruise ships have another.”
Later in the same briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about when cruise ships would take to the waters again by a reporter from Alaska, a state that was a popular cruise destination until the arrival of the coronavirus. Complicating any resumption of cruising to Alaska in particular is a rule that requires ships from American ports like Seattle to stop in Canada first. Cruising remains on pause in Canada, meaning that even if ships could sail from the United States again, they could not reach Alaska.
“We certainly recognize the importance of the cruise ship industry to the Alaska economy,” Psaki said.
Political considerations are also at work. Among those pushing for a resumption of cruises to Alaska is Sen. Lisa Murkowski. A moderate Republican from Alaska with an independent streak, she could prove a critical ally in the White House’s effort to secure at least one GOP vote for its infrastructure plan. Buttigieg and Murkowski spoke about infrastructure last month. It is not clear if they also spoke about cruise ships.
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