A federal court has temporarily dislodged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s sailing restrictions for cruise lines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday in Tampa on Friday granted a preliminary injunction that kicks in July 18 against the CDC and its sailing order. Beginning then, the CDC’s conditional sailing order will remain, but on the same “non-binding” level that applies to other travel industries, like airlines and hotels.
“This order finds that Florida is highly likely to prevail on the merits of the claim that CDC’s conditional sailing order and the implementing orders exceed the authority delegated to CDC,” Merryday wrote.
Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ office called the return of the cruise industry an important milestone in the fight for freedom.
“The CDC has been wrong all along, and they knew it,” DeSantis said in a statement. “The CDC and the Biden Administration concocted a plan to sink the cruise industry, hiding behind bureaucratic delay and lawsuits. Today, we are securing this victory for Florida families, for the cruise industry, and for every state that wants to preserve its rights in the face of unprecedented federal overreach.”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, backed by DeSantis, filed the lawsuit in April challenging restrictions imposed by the CDC that idled the industry after outbreaks aboard ships early in the pandemic in 2020.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for the hardworking Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry,” Moody said in a statement. “The federal government does not, nor should it ever, have the authority to single out and lock down an entire industry indefinitely. I am excited to see the cruise industry get sailing again, and proud to stand with Governor Ron DeSantis against illegal federal overreach and draconian lockdown measures.”
However, the CDC has two weeks to suggest a middle ground keeping within its authority, according to the injunction.
Also, Merryday ordered the two sides to return to mediation, a process that had reached impasse.
The lawsuit focuses heavily on a “conditional sailing order” the CDC initially issued in October with a phased approach to resuming cruise-ship operations.
But U.S. Department of Justice attorneys filed a brief earlier this month that said, in part, recent developments “further undermine” the state’s arguments that an injunction is needed. Those developments include the CDC approving simulated voyages that involve testing cruise-ship operators’ ability to mitigate virus risks.
The state’s lawsuit contends the CDC exceeded its authority with the restrictions and that the conditional sailing order is “arbitrary and capricious.” Also, it alleges the CDC violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which deals with how agencies impose regulations and carry out laws.
Department of Justice lawyers have countered by saying the federal government has long had authority to regulate ships to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
The federal restrictions have become tangled with decisions this spring by DeSantis and state lawmakers to ban businesses — including cruise ships — from requiring what are known as vaccine “passports” that would show people have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Opposing the federal restrictions also has become a high-profile political issue for DeSantis, who frequently blasts the CDC for mothballing cruise ships during the pandemic.
The cruise industry is key to Florida’s tourism industry, which is the largest section of the state’s economy.
The ruling came as cruise-ship operators prepare to try to sail from Florida this summer. Royal Caribbean announced this month that it plans to begin sailing from Florida ports in July and August.
Along with raising the legal arguments, DeSantis and Moody have focused heavily on the economic impact of the industry shutdown. That argument was reflected in the ruling by Merryday, who has served as a federal judge since 1992 after being nominated by former President George Bush.
“In sum, Florida establishes a strong likelihood that many or almost all cruise ships will remain unable to sail for the entire summer season,” Merryday wrote. “And each day the cruise industry faces uncertainty about when cruises can resume, Florida not only suffers a concrete economic injury resulting from reduced revenue and increased unemployment spending, but Florida faces an increasingly threatening and imminent prospect that the cruise industry will depart the state. The dislocation of all or most of an entire industry subjects Florida to a protracted or permanent loss of revenue from one of Florida’s largest industries, the benefits of which insinuate themselves into the heart of Florida’s economy.”
Today’s ruling is a victory for Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry. The federal gov’t does not have the authority to single out & lock down an entire industry indefinitely. Proud to stand w/@GovRonDeSantis against @JoeBiden’s illegal federal overreach.
— AG Ashley Moody (@AGAshleyMoody) June 18, 2021
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Republished with permission.