Florida Governor Signs Bill That Overrides Cruise Ship Ban in Key West

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Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill this week that would prohibit local communities from organizing binding referendums that would interfere with Maritime commercial traffic in Florida.

In essence, this means the referendum held last year, which all but banned cruise ships from sailing and docking in Key West, is no more.

Banning 94% of All Cruise Ship Traffic

The Key West ban would have meant that 94% of all cruise ships with scheduled calls in Key West would have been banned. The hopes for vetoing the bill by those in favor of the referendum ended on the morning of June 30. Governor Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 1194, which voids existing and prohibits future referendums and initiatives that restrict maritime commerce. The bill reads:

s. 311.25, F.S.; prohibiting a local ballot initiative or referendum from restricting maritime commerce in the seaports of this state; providing that such a local ballot initiative, referendum, or action adopted therein is prohibited, void, and expressly preempted to the state.

City officials had all voiced their support for emphasized their desire to uphold Key West voters’ intentions and prohibit large ships at the city-operated port facilities. It has been a disappointing few months for Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, which pushed the referendums:

“It seems like there’s less and less respect for the democratic process. Things like voting are being made more difficult in many parts of the country. Here we see that even when you do vote, it can be thrown out. That is fundamentally, as an American, discouraging.”

Not everyone feels the same as Mr. Haskell though.

Cruise Ships in Key West
Photo Credit: Mia2you / Shutterstock.com

According to the letter sent to the Keys Weekly by Edwin O. Swift III, the bill from Governor DeSantis is a blessing. He believes the original referendum was put together with scare tactics and misdirection from the Safer, Cleaner Ships group.

According to Swift, the opposition’s claim that the referendum would bring smaller, safer ships misled many people to think Key West would still have a cruise industry when the referendum was passed. Even though 280 scheduled and confirmed cruise ship visits to the island were booked for 2022, only 18 would have been allowed under that referendum. The cost for the city would have been millions of dollars.

Mr. Swift also says that many people depending on the cruise industry necessarily live outside of Key West due to the high house prices in the area and did not get the chance to vote on their livelihood.

“Those who work in the cruise industry and many other moderate-income wage earners don’t live in Key West. They can’t afford the prices of homes and rents in Key West, and they were disenfranchised from voting on this issue that will certainly greatly affect their ability to work and earn. Had they been allowed to vote, I’m certain the margin of Mr. Haskell’s victory would have been less or nonexistent.”

Cruise Ship in Key West, Florida

Holding Florida Hostage

Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, has been a keen supporter of the Key West Bill. He believes the Key West residents held the State of Florida hostage and set a precedent that could cost the state millions of dollars, he said to the Miami Herald:

“What we are saying is Florida has to honor their commitment under the (U.S.) Constitution to not restrict people and commerce from entering this port. We can’t simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the Port of Key West and holding the state of Florida hostage to $90 million in general revenue that would come in.”

The economic scale of Key West Cruise tourism is one of the biggest in the Caribbean. Even though the port is only a port of call for most cruise ships, the loss of income would have been dramatic.

Although the Safer, Cleaner ships organization says cruise ship tourism brings in much less than overnight tourism, the numbers say differently. Cruise passengers spend 50% more per hour than overnight visitors and 75% more than other day visitors. In 2018, cruise passengers spent $73 million in Key West.

The bill from Governor DeSantis will be a blessing for those who depend on the cruise industry, especially when many have seen income disappear during the pandemic. For many, seeing cruise ships coming into port again will be a relief indeed.

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