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Federal judge strikes down CDC cruise rules in ‘major victory’ for DeSantis

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A federal judge said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t enforce its rules for coronavirus-era sailing against cruise ships in Florida starting July 18.

The decision was hailed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — who filed suit against the public health agency in April — as a “major victory.”

“The CDC has been wrong all along, and they knew it,” DeSantis said in a statement, alleging that the agency was trying to “sink” the industry. “Today, we are securing this 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.”

Under the 124-page ruling from U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, the CDC’s conditional sailing order will become a “non-binding ‘consideration,’ ‘recommendation’ or ‘guideline’ ” when applied to Florida sailings on July 18.

As part of its conditional sailing order, the CDC says operators can sail quickly if 95 percent of crew and passengers are vaccinated. If not, the agency requires cruise lines to take volunteers on “test” cruises to show they can mitigate the risks of the coronavirus.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival said on June 11 that plans to relaunch cruises from the United States were on track, despite infections detected on a ship. (Video: Reuters)

Cruise ships have not been allowed to carry passengers from the United States since March of 2020, after high-profile outbreaks on ships around the world. As ports closed to ships with infected people on board, some sick passengers died en route to land.

The agency can propose “a narrower injunction” by July 2 “to further safeguard the public’s health while this action pends,” the ruling said. That means the CDC can add guidelines as long as ships are allowed to sail in a timely manner — and the proposed measures stay within what the judge sees as the agency’s authority. Florida would have to respond to any such proposal within seven days. CDC spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey declined to comment Friday afternoon.

A fully vaccinated cruise set sail in the Caribbean. Two passengers just tested positive for covid.

In a statement, DeSantis said the industry would soon be allowed to sail again thanks to the lawsuit that he and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) filed. In reality, some cruise ships are preparing to sail as soon as next week with the CDC’s blessing after meeting their requirements.

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

It wasn’t clear if cruise operators would change anything about their plans after July 18 given the ruling. Roger Frizzell, spokesman for industry giant Carnival Corp., said the company was in the process of reviewing the decision.

It was also unclear how the ruling would affect the decision by some cruise lines to require passengers to be vaccinated in cruises that leave from Florida — a requirement that is not allowed under state law.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email that the ruling “essentially frees the cruise industry from the CDC’s arbitrary and burdensome requirement of 95% vaccination among passengers.”

Florida governor sues the CDC to get cruises sailing immediately

She said the governor’s office was not aware of any cruise line that would be requiring “vaccine passports” on sailings from Florida. Some have said, however, that they will require either everyone on board or those over 16 to be vaccinated.

Florida argued in the suit that the CDC overstepped its authority with the conditional sailing order; in the decision, Merryday found that the state was “highly likely to prevail on the merits” of that claim.

“Viewed with the benefit of history, CDC’s assertion of a formidable and unprecedented authority warrants a healthy dose of skepticism,” he wrote.

He pointed out that the CDC had never before prohibited an industry-wide fleet from operating or imposed restrictions that “halted for an extended time an entire multi-billion dollar industry nationwide.”

“In a word, never has CDC implemented measures as extensive, disabling, and exclusive as those under review in this action,” Merryday wrote.

Royal Caribbean cruise postponed after 8 crew members test positive for coronavirus

In recent weeks, the CDC has been lifting restrictions for vaccinated passengers on cruises. Just this week, the agency lowered its warning level from a 4 to a 3 for cruises and changed its recommendation to say that people who are not fully vaccinated should avoid cruise travel.

“Since the virus spreads more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, the chance of getting covid-19 on cruise ships is high,” the agency wrote. “It is especially important that people who are not fully vaccinated with an increased risk of severe illness avoid travel on cruise ships, including river cruises.”

The difficulty of keeping the coronavirus off ships was made clear in recent days, when Royal Caribbean International postponed one of its first U.S. cruises after eight crew members tested positive for the virus before they were fully vaccinated. Last week, two passengers sharing a room on a cruise out of St. Maarten tested positive despite a requirement that all adults be fully vaccinated.

Mike Winkleman, a maritime personal injury attorney, said he expects the CDC to come back to the judge with a new set of rules for cruise lines to follow. And, he said, cruise lines can still follow the plans they have been working on in conjunction with the agency.

“It’s not just the CDC and it’s not just Gov. DeSantis,” he said. “The cruise lines have been working for a year-plus, hiring their own teams of scientists and people with practical knowledge of this to figure out how they can cruise safely.”