Ruling about restrictions for Florida-based cruise ships from CDC has governor ready to continue fight

Pandemic restrictions on Florida-based cruise ships will remain in place after a federal appeals court temporarily blocked a previous ruling that sided with a Florida lawsuit challenging the regulations.

The CDC’s restrictions were expected to expire at midnight on Sunday, but the one-paragraph decision by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filed at 11:50 p.m. Saturday, just minutes before a Tampa judge’s previous ruling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions was set to take effect.

The process that was put on hold with the latest decision would have allowed for the CDC’s COVID-19 regulations for cruise ships to be used only as a recommendations. The judges’ issuance of a temporary stay keeps the CDC regulations regarding Florida-based cruise ships in place while the CDC appeals the June decision by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.

The lawsuit, championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, claims that the CDC’s multiple-step process to allow cruising from Florida is overly burdensome, harming both a multibillion-dollar industry that provides some 159,000 jobs and revenue collected by the state.

On Monday, DeSantis addressed the decision during a press conference while signing a wildlife bill in Poinciana, Fla.

He said he remains confident that Florida will win its legal battle to lift orders from the CDC that he says are preventing cruise ships from sailing out of U.S. ports.

“So we are absolutely going to pursue, to get the stay removed, either at the full 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court. I think probably to the full 11th Circuit en banc, we’ll probably try to do that. Because right now I think they’re going to be in a similar spot until November and I think that most courts at this point have had their limit with the CDC issuing these dictates without a firm statutory basis. So, I’m confident that we win on the merits in the full 11th Circuit,” DeSantis added. “And honestly I’m confident that we will win in the U.S. Supreme Court. They just basically said, five justices effectively said, that the moratorium on evictions exceeded the CDC’s authority. And I think you end up seeing this here.”

Florida’s lawyers argued that “the equities overwhelmingly favor allowing the cruise industry to enjoy its first summer season in two years while this Court sorts out the CDC’s contentions on appeal.”

The CDC, however, said keeping the rules in place would prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks on ships that are vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of their close quarters and frequent stops at foreign ports.

“The undisputed evidence shows that unregulated cruise ship operations would exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, and that the harm to the public that would result from such operations cannot be undone,” the CDC said in a court filing.

The CDC first flatly halted cruise ships from sailing in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which had affected passengers and crew on numerous ships.

Then the CDC on Oct. 30 of last year imposed a four-phase conditional framework it said would allow the industry to gradually resume operations if certain thresholds were met. Those included virus mitigation procedures and a simulated cruise to test them before embarking regular passengers.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas was the first cruise ship to set sail out of a U.S. port in 15 months on June 20 for a two-day simulated voyage to the Bahamas.

Company representatives said the trip, which was made up of all volunteer employee passengers, was a way to test out all of the company’s new health and safety measures created by the CDC.

Cruise expert Stewart Chiron believes that cruise ships are going to continue following the safety protocols regardless of what the CDC or the governor has to say.

“It’s very important for cruise lines to start with vaccinated passengers. Having those on board not vaccinated, it’s not an experience anyone wants,” Chrison said.

Merryday’s decision concluded that the CDC can’t enforce those rules for Florida-based ships and that they should merely be considered nonbinding recommendations or guidelines. Several cruise lines have begun preliminary cruises under those guidelines, which the Tampa judge agreed with Florida are too onerous.

“Florida persuasively claims that the conditional sailing order will shut down most cruises through the summer and perhaps much longer,” the judge wrote in June, adding that Florida “faces an increasingly threatening and imminent prospect that the cruise industry will depart the state.”

The 11th Circuit’s brief decision did not include any opinions from the judges, which the panel said would be released later. The decision noted that one appeals judge dissented.

In a separate lawsuit, Norwegian Cruise Lines is suing Florida’s surgeon general over the state’s so-called COVID-19 passport ban, which does not allow businesses to require proof of vaccinations from its customers.

The Miami-based company plans to restart cruises out of Port Miami on Aug. 15 with a requirement that all passengers show that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The company has also already announced that all guests and crew members will need to be fully vaccinated on cruises that depart through October 31, 2021.

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