The state of Florida has filed a lawsuit against the United States of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claiming that the health agency’s guidance for the cruise industry is “arbitrary and capricious” and that it should be immediately dubbed “unlawful.”
“Today, Florida is fighting back,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in a news conference at Miami’s seaport Thursday, in which he announced the lawsuit. “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.”
The lawsuit comes just days after the CDC released updates to its Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), which the cruise industry called “unduly burdensome” and “largely unworkable.”
The April 2 CSO update directs cruise lines to implement COVID-19 testing of crew and increase the frequency of reporting for onboard cases from weekly to daily. It also requires cruise lines to set up contracts with port authorities and local health authorities to ensure the necessary collaboration and infrastructure are in place to handle any onboard outbreaks if they occur. Though the order does not mandate vaccinations for all aboard, it does recommend them.
Under the CDC’s framework for the CSO, cruise operators will need to run mock voyages with volunteers once all the measures are in place. Then, if all goes well, they will have to apply for a “Conditional Sailing Certificate.”
Still, even with the framework laid out, it’s unclear when the CDC will begin issuing sailing certificates or lift the CSO altogether. Currently, the CSO is set to expire on November 1, 2021 unless the CDC director rescinds it or issues other modifications.
In the press conference Thursday, DeSantis called the CSO “ridiculous” because it required cruise operators “to do all these other things.” Cruise industry officials have said that they’ve come up with their own protocols, which they claim are sufficient to keep people safe from COVID-19 at sea. The protocols largely involve previously instituted health measures as well as mandatory vaccinations for crew and adult passengers.
In a letter to CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio wrote, “By requiring full and complete vaccinations of guests and crew, the Company believes it shares in the spirit and exceeds the intent of the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order…”
However, it’s unclear how the cruise industry will actually enforce vaccination requirements in the state of Florida. The day the CDC issued the CSO updates, DeSantis issued an executive order banning businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. And a considerable chunk of the American population has so far shown resistance to getting vaccinated. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that 25 percent of Americans said they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine outright.
Nevertheless, the use of highly effective vaccines is key to the state’s legal argument against the CSO. The lawsuit notes that a lot has changed since when the CSO was initially issued on October 30, 2020, including that “multiple FDA-approved vaccines are now available.” The lawsuit goes on to say that “[d]espite the virus, and those who would lock down society indefinitely, people are traveling again. They are doing so safely with protective measures like vaccines…”
Mutiny at sea
Overall, Florida claims the CDC’s guidance is “arbitrary and capricious.” Further, the CDC’s reasoning is “inadequate,” and the federal government “failed to explain their differential treatment of the cruise industry versus other industries,” such as air travel, the suit says. The lawsuit suggested that the guidance is “nothing more than an extension of a cruise ban wrapped as a present.” As a result, “Florida will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.”
In a press briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the administration does not “have a direct response to a lawsuit nor a comment on a specific legal action, but I will just reiterate that the CDC guidance is based on data and health and medical guidelines, hence that’s why they put it out and why they regularly update it.”
In announcing the CSO updates, the CDC noted how difficult it is to prevent infectious disease outbreaks on the tightly packed, very social ships that voyage for days to weeks at a time. “Cruising safely and responsibly during a global pandemic is difficult,” the agency wrote.”While cruising will always pose some risk of COVID-19 transmission, following the phases of the CSO will ensure cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers, and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern.”