A lawsuit over the fate of the cruise industry is winding its way through the federal court system, and attorneys for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want to make sure no sailing takes place in the meantime.
In the latest ruling, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sided with the state of Florida by ruling the CDC was overstepping its boundaries with restrictions it placed on cruise ships to limit the spread of COVID-19. As a result of the ruling, large passenger ships started gearing up to set sail on July 18. But the CDC filed an appeal and is now asking for an Atlanta-based appeals court to keep cruise ships from sailing again until the appeal is settled.
U.S. Department of Justice attorneys representing the CDC asked the appeals court to issue a stay, writing that Merryday’s preliminary injunction “rests on errors of law and is a clear abuse of the district court’s discretion.” It also argued the injunction will “exacerbate the spread of COVID-19.”
“The district court had no basis to substitute its view (or Florida’s view) that the CDC’s protocols can safely be lifted for the contrary determination made by the expert public health agency in consultation with the cruise ship industry and squarely within its traditional authority,” the request to the appeals court said. “These protocols appropriately balance public health concerns with the shared desire to resume passenger cruises — as is amply demonstrated by the fact that the cruise lines (which have not appeared in this litigation) are well underway in implementing the conditional sailing order and already are, or soon will be, resuming passenger cruises.”
The request came after Merryday refused to put on hold his June 18 ruling that said the CDC had overstepped its legal authority in placing restrictions on the cruise industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although CDC invariably garnishes the argument with dire prospects of ‘transmission’ of COVID-19 aboard a cruise vessel, these dark allusions dismiss state and local health authorities, the industry’s self-regulation and the thorough and costly preparations and accommodations by all concerned to avoid ‘transmission’ and to confine and control the ‘transmission,’ if one occurs,” the Tampa-based judge wrote Wednesday. “In other words, CDC can show no factor that outweighs the need to conclude an unwarranted and unprecedented exercise of governmental power. More to the point, this action is not about what health precautions against COVID-19 are necessary or helpful aboard a cruise ship; this action is about the use and misuse of governmental power.”
According to attorneys representing the CDC, at-risk in the matter of cruising is the transmission of COVID-19. To keep that risk low, the CDC issued a conditional sail order that can be bypassed if cruise companies check the vaccine status of passengers to ensure more than 90% of passengers are vaccinated. But in Florida, a state with a billion-dollar cruise industry, requiring a passenger to share their vaccine status is now illegal.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, filed the lawsuit challenging the conditional sail order in April.
The CDC in October issued the conditional sailing order, which included a phased approach to resuming cruising, with ship operators needing to meet a series of requirements such as proof of vaccination status for crew members and passengers, among other precautions.
In addition to arguing the CDC overstepped its authority, DeSantis and Moody have focused heavily on the economic impacts of cruise ships not being able to sail from Florida.
Merryday’s 124-page ruling backed the state’s position. He said the preliminary injunction would take effect July 18. That prompted federal-government attorneys to file the appeal Tuesday of the underlying issues and the flurry of activity Wednesday about placing a stay on the ruling.
It was not immediately clear Thursday when the appeals court could rule on the requested stay.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.