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Florida Appeals Court Lifts CDC Restrictions On Cruise Ships

Cruise ships line the Port of Miami
Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Cruise ships line PortMiami. The cruise industry shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks onboard ships early in the pandemic.

The panel reversed an earlier decision and is a win for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said the CDC overstepped its authority by restricting the cruise industry.

An appeals court on Friday reversed itself and at least temporarily blocked federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions on the cruise-ship industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for a preliminary injunction against the restrictions. The same panel on Saturday had issued a ruling that put the preliminary injunction on hold.

The two-paragraph order Friday did not explain the panel’s reasons for vacating its Saturday ruling. But the move was a victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody who contend that the CDC overstepped its legal authority by placing the restrictions on the industry.

Moody, backed by DeSantis, filed a lawsuit in April challenging the restrictions, which came after the cruise industry shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks onboard ships early in the pandemic.

The legal battle focuses heavily on what is known as a “conditional sailing order,” which the CDC issued in October. The conditional sailing order included a phased approach to resuming cruising, with ship operators needing to meet a series of requirements.

“I’m glad to see the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse its prior decision and free the cruise lines from unlawful CDC mandates, which effectively mothballed the industry for more than a year," DeSantis said in a statement Friday. "The importance of this case extends beyond the cruise industry. From here on out a federal bureau will be on thin legal and constitutional ice if and when it attempts to exercise such sweeping authority that is not explicitly delineated by law."

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday last month agreed with the state’s arguments and issued a preliminary injunction against the restrictions. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys, representing the CDC, appealed Merryday’s ruling to the Atlanta-based appellate court.

Also, the Department of Justice attorneys requested a stay of Merryday’s preliminary injunction while the appeals court considers the underlying issues in the case. The three-judge panel on Saturday approved the requested stay --- but then changed its mind Friday, saying only that the federal government “failed to demonstrate an entitlement to a stay pending appeal.”

The underlying appeal will still move forward, but Friday’s decision allows the preliminary injunction to take effect. The panel was made up of Judges Charles Wilson, Jill Pryor and Elizabeth Branch.

After the Saturday ruling, DeSantis had vowed to fight to get the stay removed. The state on Friday also asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to step in and eliminate the stay.

“I think most courts at this point have had their limit of the CDC issuing these dictates without a firm statutory basis,” DeSantis said Monday. “I am confident we’d win on the merits at the full 11th Circuit, and obviously I am confident we would win at the U.S. Supreme Court.”

But in asking the appeals court for the stay, the CDC’s attorneys argued that the “preliminary injunction rests on errors of law and is a clear abuse of the district court’s discretion.”

“All of the cruise ships at issue here are foreign-flagged vessels that must stop at one or more foreign ports during each voyage,” Department of Justice attorneys wrote in the July 7 motion for a stay. “Cruise travel has the potential to introduce COVID-19 variants of concern into the United States from countries such as the Bahamas, Mexico, Honduras, Saint Maarten, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Aruba, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. The CDC has authority to make and enforce such regulations as in its judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission or spread of communicable disease from a foreign country into the United States.”

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.