Taking a cruise from Florida? Appeals court blocks order lifting CDC COVID-19 rules on ships

Josh Rivera

Cruising restrictions will stay in place in Florida.

A federal appeals court panel sided with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its legal battle with the state over COVID-19 guidelines for cruise lines.

The 2-1 decision handed down late Saturday by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judges stays, or temporarily blocks, a U.S. district judge's decision – minutes before it would have gone into effect – that the CDC could not enforce its framework for the return of cruises.

Florida had been granted a preliminary injunction that could render CDC restrictions on cruising to and from the state as optional guidance starting this month.

The ruling from last month by Judge Steven Merryday said, "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."

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In March 2020, the CDC halted cruises and has since laid out a four-phase framework allowing cruise lines to resume operations under specific conditions. Florida filed a lawsuit, championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, claiming the process to allow cruising from Florida is overly burdensome, harming the multibillion-dollar industry and revenue collected by the state.

The governor said Monday during a press conference in Poinciana that the state is "absolutely going to pursue to get the stay removed" either in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals or at the U.S. Supreme Court.

DeSantis continued that he was confident Florida would prevail at the circuit court and at the Supreme Court levels, adding that the conflict raises a "bigger question."

"Can you just have one agency and the government without Congress ever passing a law, just basically shutting down an industry?" DeSantis asked.

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In the court filing, attorneys for Florida urged the 11th Circuit to reject the CDC request to keep its rules intact.

“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,” Florida’s lawyers argued.

The CDC said keeping the rules in place would prevent 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.

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The cruise industry will continue to comply with the CDC's Framework for Conditional Sailing in the state of Florida as it has continued to do across the United States, Cruise Lines International Association, the leading industry organization, said in a statement provided Monday by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications.

"CLIA ocean-going cruise line members resuming initial operations from Florida and all other U.S. ports will continue to operate in accordance with the CSO’s requirements which govern during the industry’s phased return to full service," CLIA said. "This is consistent with the cruise industry’s decades-long commitment to following the advice and guidance of scientists and public health experts."

josh addedGovernor DeSantis' press secretary Christina Pushaw said they "remain confident in eventual success on the actual merits of this litigation, (and) we are considering options for immediate appeal to reinstate the trial court’s injunction that enjoined the CDC’s No Sail Orders as unconstitutional and lacking congressional authority."

Disney Cruise Lines held its first simulated sailing under CDC rules Saturday when the Disney Dream departed from Port Canaveral, Florida. The passengers were volunteer employees.

Contributing: Morgan Hines, Jordan Culver and John Bacon, USA TODAY; The Associated Press