DeSantis lawsuit against CDC heads to mediation as Florida cruises tread water

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Tampa sent lawyers for the state of Florida and the CDC to mediation on the issue of whether cruises must comply with federal rules before setting sail. They have until June 1.
Carnival cruise line ship Carnival Magic is docked at Port Canaveral, in Cape Canaveral in 2020.
Carnival cruise line ship Carnival Magic is docked at Port Canaveral, in Cape Canaveral in 2020. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published May 19, 2021|Updated May 19, 2021

The cruise industry must still fulfill rules established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before it can resume sailing from U.S. waters — at least for now.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Tampa sent lawyers for the state of Florida and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mediation. The order was a set-back for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who sued the federal agency last month arguing that its rules unfairly target the cruise industry and asking the court to declare its framework to restart cruises — know as the “condition sail order” — unlawful by issuing a preliminary injunction.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida is giving both sides until June 1 to mediate.

At a hearing last week, Merryday questioned why the state waited until April 2021 to sue the CDC over the conditional sail order first issued in October. He said it is reasonable for cruise companies to be concerned about when they will be able to get back to business.

No cruise companies joined DeSantis on the lawsuit.

Most cruise companies are in the second phase of the conditional sail order after having successfully completed the first phase earlier this year by increasing COVID-19 testing capacity on their ships and reporting weekly crew member test results to the agency. In the second phase, companies are negotiating agreements with ports and local health authorities in the U.S. cities they plan to visit when cruises resume to avoid ships getting stranded at sea if there is an outbreak.

After the agreements are in place, cruise ships can welcome passengers back in U.S. ports if companies can attest that 95 percent of passengers and 98 percent of crew members have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If a ship doesn’t meet the vaccination threshold, it will have to first operate test cruises with volunteers to make sure other virus prevention protocols are working.

The CDC has said that it is possible companies can restart cruises in July, depending on how quickly they meet the agency’s requirements. Cruises in the U.S. have been banned since mid-March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on multiple ships.

Jude Merryday’s decision to order mediation weakens DeSantis’ bid to get the CDC’s safety rules thrown out immediately. At last week’s hearing, lawyers for Florida argued that the state is losing out on important tax revenue as cruises in the U.S. remain canceled and having to pay unemployment benefits to cruise industry workers. Legal experts called the lawsuit a “political stunt,” given the CDC’s broad authority to regulate public health and ports.

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Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the third largest cruise line in the world, threatened earlier this month to restart its cruises outside of Florida if the state will not allow the company to guarantee that all passengers and crew on its ships have been vaccinated against COVID-19. DeSantis signed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature that bans businesses, schools and government entities in Florida from asking anyone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.