In what has become a states’ rights issue, the battle between the state of Florida and the federally-run Center for Diseases and Control Prevention (CDC) took another turn on Friday July 23rd when a federal appeals court reversed course and decided to affirm a lower court order prohibiting the CDC from enforcing Covid-19-related cruise ship rules in Florida.
Florida had filed suit against the CDC, arguing that its curbs singled out the cruise industry for unfair treatment The same federal court, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had a few days previously appeared to back the CDC when, by a majority decision, it stayed the lower court ruling. However, only a few days later the three-judge appeals panel said it had withdrawn its earlier order on its own and was now rejecting the government’s request. It gave as its grounds that the US government had “failed to demonstrate an entitlement to a stay, pending appeal.”
The CDC said that, even though it could not require cruise ships to abide by the sail order, it would enforce its separate transit mask requirements on cruise ships in Florida that opt not to follow the now voluntary programme.
In a statement on Friday the CDC said that if cruise lines chose to disregard the rules laid out in its conditional sail order (CSO), it would enforce its mask requirements for public transit on board their cruise ships. CDC previously issued an order that required face masks to be worn by all travellers while on public transportation, including all passengers and crew on vessels transiting in or out of the US. Masks are also required while indoors at US transportation hubs, including seaports and ferry terminals. The agency has previously said that it would waive enforcement of its mask rule for vessels that were participating in the CSO return-to-sailing plan.
Attempting to put a positive spin on the legal defeat, the CDC said on Friday that all cruise ships in Florida would still be required to report “individual cases of illness or death and ship inspections and sanitary measures to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases”.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office said the state was pleased that the appeals court had lifted “the prior order allowing the preliminary injunction to be in place.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that he was “glad to see the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse its prior decision and free the cruise lines from unlawful CDC mandates, which effectively mothballed the industry for more than a year. The importance of this case extends beyond the cruise industry. From here on out a federal bureau will be on thin legal and constitutional ice if and when it attempts to exercise such sweeping authority that is not explicitly delineated by law.”
What was effectively an appeals court about-turn came soon after Florida filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court asking the high court to lift the appeals court order, warning in its filing that, without action, the state was “all but guaranteed to lose yet another summer cruise season while the CDC pursues its appeal”.
In June US District Judge Steven Merryday took the side of Republican-led Florida, finding that the state was “highly likely” to show the CDC exceeded its authority in adopting rules governing the resumption of cruise ship sailing.
Trade group Cruise Lines International Association did not indicate on Friday whether it supported Florida’s legal challenge, but said before the appeals court order that cruise ships would continue to operate in accordance with the CDC requirements. The CLIA is in a difficult position as different cruise companies hold varying positions on the legal fight and on Florida’s strident position.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd has gone as far as suing Florida, claiming that the state law prohibiting cruise lines from requiring Covid-19 vaccine documentation was preventing it “from safely and soundly resuming passenger cruise operations” from Miami starting on August 15th.