Florida has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to force the reopening of the state’s cruise industry.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Tampa, names as defendants the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the agencies’ appointed leaders. It claims the CDC’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines for cruise ships are “arbitrary and capricious,” unconstitutional, and violations of the federal laws governing administrative procedures.
The lawsuit deepens a battle between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Biden administration over the wisest course out of the pandemic. DeSantis has lifted most restrictions on businesses in Florida and has repeatedly criticized Biden’s cautious steps.
DeSantis last week issued an executive order barring businesses from requiring that customers be vaccinated. He sidestepped a reporter’s question at a news conference Thursday asking whether he would accept a CDC requirement requiring passengers to be vaccinated as a condition for resuming cruises.
“We’re not doing vaccine passports in Florida,” the governor interjected. “It’s not necessary. It causes a huge amount of problems, and I think you’re seeing a huge groundswell against these.”
Whether DeSantis has any authority over vaccine requirements by cruise lines, which are all registered in overseas countries and operate mostly in international waters, remains to be seen.
The governor’s press secretary did not immediately respond to questions, emailed after the announcement, asking if he would accept a vaccination mandate from the CDC and whether he believes he has authority over cruise lines’ vaccination requirements.
Attorney Dawn Myers, partner with the government and regulatory team of Miami-based firm Berger Singerman, said DeSantis likely has no authority under interstate law, international law or maritime law to bar cruise lines from requiring vaccinations unless “cruise ships were going from Florida port to Florida port.”
Success of the state’s lawsuit against the CDC, Myers said, could depend on which federal judge is assigned to the case, how hard the CDC fights it, and whether the cruise industry decides to join it.
The lawsuit seeks to invalidate CDC guidelines for resuming cruises and allow the industry to immediately reopen with reasonable safety protocols.
The suit claims that Florida has been damaged by the CDC’s policies by:
• Preventing numerous businesses and employees from earning a living.
• Contributing to the state’s unemployment rate.
• Worsening massive revenue shortfalls experienced by the state’s seaports.
• Reducing state and local taxes associated with the cruise industry
DeSantis said that tens of thousands of Florida workers who depend on the cruise lines have been unfairly harmed by the ban, which has been in effect since March 2020. Sixty percent of cruises from the U.S. are launched from Florida, generating $8 billion in economic activity annually.
“We don’t believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data. And I think we have a good chance for success.”
In recent weeks, the cruise industry has been calling for the CDC to establish new guidelines enabling cruising to resume from U.S. ports by July with vaccinated passengers and crew. Revised guidelines, despite acknowledging the advent of vaccines as a measure to prevent spread of COVID-19 on board cruise ships, were criticized by the industry’s leading trade organization as “unduly burdensome” and “largely unworkable.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody, during the news conference, called the CDC’s requirement that cruise lines comply with health and safety guidelines and obtain certification to resume operations from U.S. ports “unlawful.”
“If we do not do this, you will see cruise lines continue to move these cruises to other countries,” Moody said. “The Biden administration has had numerous opportunities to engage and put America’s businesses first, Florida’s businesses first. And instead he has allowed the playing field to be tilted to the benefit of foreign countries. And Florida will not allow that to happen.”
In recent days, the damage has been made worse by decisions by several cruise lines to launch cruises outside the United States, DeSantis said. Those countries will get the money from hotel stays and restaurant visits by cruise travelers who would otherwise be coming to Florida, he said.
Royal Caribbean last month said it would base ships in Nassau and Bermuda for a series of summer voyages to the Bahamas and Caribbean. Vaccinations will be required for all adult passengers and crew members.
Norwegian Cruise Line on Monday announced plans to resume cruising from the U.S. on July 4, pending CDC approval of its plan to require vaccinations of all guests and crew members. The cruise line also hedged its bets by announcing newly scheduled cruises from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic beginning in August.
Carnival Corp. said last week that it has not yet established a vaccination policy for its customers, nor made a decision about moving U.S.-based ships overseas. But it argued this week that it might be forced to do so to resume operations.
Myers, the attorney in Miami, said the suit might have a chance of prevailing in court because it’s not primarily based on an argument that the CDC’s guidelines are unconstitutional but rather that the CDC violated federal procedural rules in creating the regulations. She called the state’s legal argument “interesting and novel.”
“The lawsuit says there are constraints on the CDC under the procedural rules, and the CDC exceeded its authority and was arbitrary and capricious because its original Oct. 30 order didn’t take into account state health protocols that were in place and the likelihood that the science would change with development of vaccines,” she said.
However, the lawsuit might be more effective as a political argument than a legal one by compelling the CDC to issue revised guidelines that provide a clearer path to resumption of cruising, Myers said.
Despite industry criticism of the CDC’s revised guidelines, cruise industry representatives declined on Thursday to endorse the state’s lawsuit.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and share the sense of urgency of getting Americans back to work,” a Carnival Corp. spokesman said by email. “Our focus is trying to work with the CDC on a plan to resume cruise operations this summer.”
A Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman said her company does not comment “on third-party litigation” adding, “We look forward to partnering with the CDC to engage in meaningful discussions.”
The Cruise Line International Association, a trade group representing all of world’s major cruise lines, said it was “grateful” for DeSantis’ support of the industry, while stressing that members of the “entire cruise community ... remain focused on dialogue with the CDC and the administration to pursue a workable path to cruising by the beginning of July.”