Vice President Mike Pence emerged from a meeting in Fort Lauderdale Saturday with executives of Florida-based sea cruise lines to announce plans to protect passengers and crew from infection with coronavirus.
The announcement came as state health officials disclosed a new presumptive positive diagnosis of COVID-19, a potentially deadly respiratory ailment caused by the virus, this time in Charlotte County. That brought the statewide total to eight cases, two of them fatal thus far.
The gathering evidenced the degree of official concern for Florida’s massive tourism industry if the virus’ spread scares people away from cruise companies and other attractions — plus Florida’s population of retirees who, as a number of officials pointed out, are at greatest risk from fatal COVID-19 complications.
President Trump has placed Pence in charge of the administration’s response to the viral outbreak. During a news conference, Pence was asked whether the Trump administration was actively discouraging at-risk people including elderly people to undertake cruise ship travel.
“As we deal with the spread of the coronavirus, it is very important if you have a family member or are yourself a senior citizen with a serious underlying health condition, this would be a good time to practice common sense and avoid activities, including traveling on a cruise line, that might unnecessarily expose one to the coronavirus,” Pence said.
As for the state’s theme parks, “We want to be clear that it is safe for healthy Americans to travel. It’s a good time to use common sense and be careful.”
The cruise ship protocols still being worked out will include improvements to entry and exit screening for the virus, plus shipboard testing, Pence said. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help the lines develop quarantine standards, he said.
“We also will be working with the industry as they develop a plan an patients who contract the coronavirus or otherwise become seriously ill to land-based facilities,” Pence said.
“Over the next 72 hours, I have instructed the Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, and CDC to work closely with industry leaders to craft this industry-led plan,” he said.
Pence speculated the plan could be mostly worked out within about a week.
The goal, he said “is to ensure that the American people can continue as we deal with the coronavirus to enjoy the opportunities in the cruise line industry and be confident that the industry and our government at every level are working in concert to ensure their health and well-being.”
“We are hard at work already, even since the meeting ended,” said Adam Goldstein, chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association. “We look forward to a very integrated and fruitful dialog with all the relevant government agencies over the next hours coming.”
Also present were Chad Wolf, acting secretary for Homeland Security, CDC director Robert Redfield, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
President Trump “is a big supporter of the cruise line industry here in Florida, but he also is very clear that the safety of the American people comes first,” DeSantis said.
“The industry, they do take the safety very seriously,” he said. “They obviously need to take action to make sure that they’re keeping their passengers safe and not putting undue burdens on the federal resources or even our state resources.”
“This is an important industry to this state,” Rubio said. “It’s an important economic engine. No one wants to see cruises cancelled or discouraged. We also cannot afford as a country to have another instance in which we have 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 passengers and no established protocol for how to deal with it.”
The discussions came as officials tried to figure out what to do with infected or potentially exposed passengers on board two cruise ships either docked in California or steaming off the state’s coast. Pence said authorities now fear that crew members from one of those ships may now be aboard a third ship. A medical assessment of that situation was underway, he said.
“I would not encourage anyone to change their plans at this point based on what the epidemiology is here in Florida,” Redfield said. “They should enjoy Disneyland. They should enjoy the rest of Florida.”