Judge Blocks C.D.C. From Enforcing Virus Rules for Cruise Ships in Florida

Judge Blocks C.D.C. From Enforcing Virus Rules for Cruise Ships in Florida

A federal judge ruled on Friday that, beginning on July 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will no longer be allowed to enforce its rules intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on cruise ships in Florida.

In his ruling, the judge, Steven D. Merryday of U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, granted Florida’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking the C.D.C. from enforcing the rules in Florida’s ports, finding that they were based on “stale data” and failed to take into account the prevalence of effective vaccines.

The judge said that, beginning on July 18, the rules “will persist as only a nonbinding ‘consideration,’ ‘recommendation’ or ‘guideline,’ the same tools used by C.D.C. when addressing the practices in other similarly situated industries, such as airlines, railroads, hotels, casinos, sports venues, buses, subways, and others.”

The ruling was a victory for Florida, a cruise industry hub, which had challenged the rules in April, arguing that they were crippling the industry and causing the state to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Judge Merryday said that more than 13 million cruise passengers and crew members had embarked and disembarked in Florida and patronized Florida’s businesses in 2019.

Florida also argued that the C.D.C. had exceeded its authority and had acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” when it issued the rules last year.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the hardworking Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry,” the state’s attorney general, Ashley 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.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida called the ruling a “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.”

“The C.D.C. has been wrong all along, and they knew it,” he said in a statement.

The C.D.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday night. In his ruling, Judge Merryday gave the agency until July 2 to propose a “narrower injunction” that would allow cruise ships to sail in a timely fashion.

At issue in the lawsuit filed by Florida in April was a “conditional sailing order” issued by the C.D.C. that went into effect on Oct. 30 and sought to safely reopen the cruise industry under a four-phase framework after months in which cruise ships had remained docked in ports.

Phase one required cruise ship operators to build a laboratory aboard each vessel for testing of crew members. In phase two, operators were required to take each cruise ship on a simulated voyage intended to evaluate the operator’s onboard Covid-19 mitigation measures.

Phase three required a “conditional sailing certificate” from the C.D.C. before a cruise ship operator could undertake a passenger voyage. In phase four, operators were allowed “restricted passenger voyages” under certain conditions, including a seven-day limit on the length of each voyage.

The C.D.C. had argued that imposing the rules fell within its authority and that the rules were based on “reasoned decision-making” and reasonable conclusions, “especially given the extraordinary deference” that the agency was due during a public health emergency.

The agency had also argued that the prevention of future Covid-19 infections aboard cruises outweighed any economic injury to Florida.

Judge Merryday, however, wrote that Covid “no longer threatens the public’s health to the same extent presented at the start of the pandemic or when C.D.C. issued the conditional sailing order.”

“In fact, C.D.C.’s conditional sailing order relies on stale data obtained to justify the no-sail orders when the danger posed by Covid-19 was qualitatively and quantitatively different from today,” Judge Merryday wrote. “Conversely, Florida’s injury and the injury to Florida’s economy grows by the day.”

Judge Merryday wrote that cruise ships now “safely sail all over the world with protocols designed to minimize the spread of Covid-19.” Since July 2020, he wrote, more than 400,000 people have sailed on cruises abroad. In Europe, he wrote, thousands sail on cruises “without debilitating infections of Covid-19.”

“The availability of vaccines and testing and the comparatively trivial incidence of infection on foreign cruises — all quickly identified and confined — commends optimism about the safe operation of sailing in the United States, which enjoys high rates of vaccination and greatly enhanced, onboard containment mechanisms,” he wrote.


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