The ban on cruise ships in Key West seemed to be down and out, but recent developments seem to put a new spin on a situation forcing cruise lines to look elsewhere. Only recently, Celebrity Cruises, Virgin Voyages, and MSC Cruises have changed itineraries to exclude Key West.
Carnival Cruise Line still has cruises to Key West on the itineraries for three ships in January, and more after that, although a letter from ships agents seems to suggest Carnival has cancelled these calls.
Despite the state of Florida declaring the November 2020 referendum banning ships from Key West unlawful, the Mayor of the city then suggested an ordinance restricting cruise ships. With the issue now under mediation, there is no saying whether cruise ships will return to Key West.
In November of 2020, the people of Key West voted for a referendum that limited cruise ship traffic for nearly 95% of the ships visiting the area. This referendum meant cruise ships were not welcome in Key West.
However, on July 1 of 2021, Governor DeSantis signed a new law prohibiting municipalities from regulating marine commerce through a referendum. At this point, there was no law anymore that banned cruise ships from docking at one of the three available docks in the city, neither the privately owned Pier B nor the Mallory and Outer Mole docks.
Up to this point, the issue had been straightforward. Until city commissioners stepped in and said they wanted to find a way to implement the voters’ will through an ordinance restricting cruise ships.
The law implemented by the Governor bans port regulation by referendum, yet the city commissioners do still have the authority to regulate the city-run docks of Mallory and Outer Mole; however, the Pier B dock is an entirely different story. So far, the ordinance has not been passed as the city will need to find a lawyer willing to draft something that will inadvertently cause some significant lawsuits.
Pier B is privately owned by the Pier B Development Corporation, owned again by Mark Walsh. The city of Key West owns the Mallory Square dock. The city leases the Outer Mole Pier from the U.S. Navy. While the ordinance could include Pier B and ships docking here, the question is whether the city wants to go there.
There is a perpetual contract between the ownership of Pier B and the City of Key West. First of all, both parties would need to agree to end that contract without it being a breach of contract. If the city passes the ordinance without an agreement with the owners of Pier, it will likely lead to lawsuits:
Commissioner Billy Wardlow: “I know we can do something (to regulate ships) at Mallory Pier and the Outer Mole, but Pier B being private property is different. I wouldn’t want someone telling me what I can do with my property.”
A letter from ship’s agents Caribe Nautical ships’ agents shed light on what’s next for Key West. The agent details conversations between cruise lines and city officials, saying the city effectively bans cruise ships despite the lack of a signed ordinance and goes against Florida law. During a Zoom call, Carnival executives were told that no port agreements would be considered if ships did not comply with the ship limits covered in the now illegal 2020 referendum:
“Two meetings between City officials and cruise line executives resulted in immediate cancellations of long-established cruise ship berth reservations: The first was a Zoom meeting between Carnival Cruise Line (CCL) executives, the City Manager, the Port Director and the City legal department. The Carnival executives were emphatically told that no MOA would be considered unless it included the ship size restrictions reflected in the November 2020 referenda.”
Although the Port Agreements under the CDC’s Conditional Sail Order are not mandatory in the state of Florida, it meant that Carnival cruise line calls were canceled immediately:
“Because the City refused their MOAS without the ship restrictions included, CCL and Holland America Line (a Carnival company) notified us they were cancelling their many ship calls into Key West.”
It must be said that Carnival Cruise Line has not confirmed this statement from the ship’s agents in Key West for its upcoming calls onboard Carnival Conquest, Carnival Sunrise, and Carnival Magic in January of next year.
Whether cruise ships are illegal or not, it does seem that cruise lines are avoiding Key West. The possibility of the ordinances being passed in Key West causes uncertainty for planning cruises. According to reports from Key West, the issue is now under discussion again between representatives from Safer Cleaner Ships, Pier B and Caribe Nautical ships’ agents and the city officials.