CDC files federal appeal over Florida court ruling on conditional sail orders

The dispute over whether vaccinations can or must be required by businesses serving the general public is morphing into a states’ rights issue in the US.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has filed an appeal in federal court seeking to overturn a Florida district court’s ruling, thus blocking the lower court’s injunction against the conditional sailing order (CSO) governing the restart of cruises from US ports.

The lower court had sided with Florida. It gave the CDC until the beginning of July to propose narrower restrictions. It also ordered the two sides to mediate the case.

The CDC filed with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, contending that the restrictions on cruises from US ports were vital to continuing efforts to prevent the spread of the new variants of Covid-19 in the US. The CDC also asserted that the court’s actions were “unnecessary” The CDC said that it had provided a framework for the restoration of cruising from US ports. It cited numerous examples of cruise ships that had either been approved to operate simulated voyages or that had begun sailing under the restricted cruise provisions.

The CDC has asserted that the CSO was “an important tool in ensuring that cruise ship operations do not exacerbate the spread of dangerous Covid-19 variants during this inflection point in the pandemic. It does not shut down the cruise industry but instead provides a sensible, flexible framework for reopening, based on the best available scientific evidence”, the CDC did not appear to address Florida’s main contentions, that it was suffering “immediate harm” from the loss of revenues and unemployment that could be laid at the door of the CDC requirements.

The state asserted that the CDC was overstepping its authority in regulating cruises, was singling out the industry for stricter rules than other segments of the hospitality industry, and that it was too slow to respond to changes in the nature of the pandemic, such as the vaccinations, new scientific information, and better routines to control the spread of the virus.

The US cruise industry, including in Florida, has begun to resume operations, with. Celebrity Cruises sailing from Port Everglades in June and Royal Caribbean International completing CSC “simulation trials” in order to begin commercial cruises without requiring 95% of passengers to be vaccinated. At the start of this month Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both resumed cruises, including departures from Port Miami.

The CDC believes that cruise ships represented a sui generis situation, because passengers and crew remained in close proximity for a prolonged period.

On June 18th District Court Judge Steven Merryday issued a ruling Florida was likely to prevail in its case. The judge said that Florida had provided sufficient proof of harm from the CDC’s regulations and that the CDC was overstepping its authority. The judge granted a temporary injunction, which is due to start in mid-July, changing the mandatory demands in the CSO to recommendations only. The court gave the CDC until July 2nd to propose a narrow policy for the cruise industry, within the court’s view of the agency’s authority. The CDC has responded with a federal appeal.

The CDC has also argued that there was no evidence that, were the injunction to go into effect, that cruises would restart quicker and thus provide Florida with greater revenues. The CDC asserted in its appeal that the CSO was part of the agency’s long-standing authority to oversee health issues on the foreign-flag ships calling at US ports.

The cruise lines themselves are treading a fine line between the two sides. Celebrity Cruises did announce that it would require vaccinations, but is now asking passengers to indicate voluntarily their vaccination status, or else agree to testing and restrictions aboard its cruise ship. This meets Florida’s law banning businesses in the state from asking for proof of vaccinations.

Carnival and Royal Caribbean also adjusted their policies for any cruises taking passengers in Florida.