Florida will continue to press its case in demanding the federal government lift its restrictions and allow the state’s $8.1 billion cruise ship industry to leave port immediately.
“And so if the question is, are we going to keep pursuing this litigation, yes, until cruises are up and going in Florida,” Florida Attorney General Ashely Moody said in Jacksonville, one day after U.S. District Court Judge Steven Merryday sent Florida’s lawsuit against the federal conditional-sale order into mediation until June 1.
“That said,” Moody added, “we have been asked by the court to mediate. That’s not unusual. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop pursuing the mission of that suit and successfully allowing our cruises to operate.”
The mediation order came a week after state and federal attorneys argued before Merryday in Tampa in Florida’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) conditional-sale order and resume sailing immediately.
The state’s lawsuit, filed against the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHSS) contends the order is “unlawful,” outdated and has left the state’s cruise industry pier-side since last March.
Under Merryday’s Tuesday order, the 14 cruise lines that employ nearly 150,000 Floridians in operating 63 ships out of five ports must still adhere to the CDC’s updated conditional-sale guidelines that require 30 days of preparation before a test sailing and another 60 days before getting a certificate.
Under the order, cruise ships with at least 95% of passengers and 98% of crew vaccinated can bypass the test-sailing requirement, skipping 30 days in the certification process.
The CDC has said it is possible companies can restart cruises in July, depending on how quickly they meet the agency’s requirements. Cruises in the U.S. have been banned since mid-March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on ships.
During last week’s hearing, attorneys said the CDC has the authority to remove public health hazards but not to “arbitrarily” shut down an entire industry such as cruise lines and that has cost Florida millions in tax revenues and use fees.
Noting public health conditions have improved since the CDC issued its conditional-sail order, Florida lawyers said cruising has safely resumed in Asia and Europe with “resounding success” while Florida’s cruise ships are stuck in port – or planning to launch from other countries.
State attorneys said Florida’s vaccination program and the cruise ship industry’s own Healthy Sail Panel COVID-19 protocols would serve as well if not better than the CDC’s rules.
Federal attorneys countered that Florida has no standing to sue and that the CDC, not the state, as a federal agency has the power to regulate cruise ships from U.S. ports.
U.S. lawyers said the CDC “lawfully and reasonably” drafted the rules to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 aboard ships, which outweighs any economic damages the state might have suffered.
Every day in mediation is day a Floridian employed by cruiseliners are idling ashore and the state and local governments aren’t collecting tax and use revenues, Moody said.
“There aren’t any cruises operating out of Florida. As you know, 60% of the cruises in this nation leave from Florida. Not one cruise has sailed from Florida in over a year. That represents hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars,” she said, noting the shutdown doesn’t just affect crews and captains but subsidiary industries, such as uniform makers, flowers and catering “needed relief from this overreaching, unlawful shutdown of our industry.”