A US federal court judge has ruled that, from 18 July, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will no longer be able to enforce COVID-suppression rules on Florida cruise ships.
Justice Steven Merryday, in a 124-page ruling, stated that the scientific grounds for the CDC regulations were outdated as they were based on data from 2020 and did not take into account the current vaccination rates in the US, where, as of 11 June, 53% of adults were fully vaccinated.
He ruled that agency’s conditional sailing order will become a “non-binding ‘consideration,’ ‘recommendation’ or ‘guideline’”, rather than an enforceable regulation, when applied to cruise ships sailing to or from Florida from 18 July – similar to how the CDC addresses the practices in such industries and services as airlines, railroads, hotels, casinos, sports venues, buses and subways.
The judge’s decision was described as a “major victory” by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The state of Florida had filed suit against the CDC in April, claiming that the agency had overstepped its authority when it replaced a no-sailing order with a conditional sailing order in October last year. That order stated that cruise ships had to meet specific safety protocols before they could operate.
Merryday agreed that the CDC had exceeded its authority, stating that the conditional sailing order was “arbitrary and capricious because the order imposes vague and shifting (but binding) legal requirements and because the order fails to offer any reasoned explanation about the inadequacy of local measures”.
He also agreed with the plaintiff’s assertion that continuing the CDC restrictions on the cruise ship industry meant an “imminent threat of irreparable injury to Florida”.
The judge cited a Federal Maritime Commission report which showed that Florida’s economy has lost more than US$22 billion and 169,000 jobs since cruises and cargo ships have been unable to sail.
In a statement issued on Friday, DeSantis said, “The CDC has been wrong all along, and they knew it.”
He added, “The CDC and the Biden Administration concocted a plan to sink the cruise industry, hiding behind bureaucratic delay and lawsuits. 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.”
Merryday gave the CDC an opportunity to appeal and propose other COVID-control measures for cruise ships by 2 July, but said the agency “must support the proposed terms with current scientific evidence and fully disclose – if unavailable to the public – scientific evidence, including methodology, raw data, analysis, and the like, and the names and qualifications of the scientists participating in the study, modeling, or the like”.
If the CDC opts to do so, then Florida must respond within seven days, and a hearing will occur immediately after the state’s response.
A number of cruise lines have been preparing to take to the seas again, using the framework for a return to sailing outlined by the CDC, which includes measures such as COVID testing for unvaccinated travellers. The court ruling means that the CDC, from 18 July, cannot enforce those rules for ships entering or leaving Florida ports.