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Judge Set To Weigh Cruise Ship Restrictions

Wikimedia Commons
The Carnival Ecstasy sails from Jacksonville.

A U.S. district judge will hear arguments Wednesday in Florida’s request for a preliminary injunction against federal restrictions that have idled the cruise-ship industry, including Jacksonville’s Carnival Ecstasy, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, filed the lawsuit last month challenging restrictions imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and pointing to the economic impact on the state.

Moody’s office is seeking a preliminary injunction based, in part, on arguments that the CDC overstepped its legal authority in imposing the restrictions.

“Most industries are now back to business, and it is long past time for the rest to follow suit,” the motion for a preliminary injunction said. “The cruise industry in Florida cannot do so. It has been locked down for over a year. And this lockdown was not enacted pursuant to the state’s police power, by the United States Congress, or even by the politically accountable president. Rather, it was imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pursuant to a limited delegation from Congress to inspect and disinfect property and animals.”

But U.S. Department of Justice attorneys argue that the federal government has long had authority to regulate ships to prevent the spread of communicable diseases and that Florida lacks legal “standing” to pursue the case.

In a court document filed this week, the Justice Department attorneys cited outbreaks early in the pandemic aboard cruise ships, saying that the “experiences demonstrated that cruise ships are uniquely suited to spread COVID-19, likely due to their close quarters for passengers and crew for prolonged periods and other factors.”

“The CDC has concluded that without adequate precautions, a cruise ship outbreak exacerbating and amplifying the spread of the virus is quite likely given the unique characteristics of cruise ships,” the document said. “Plaintiff (the state) does not evaluate the impact of such outbreaks on the cruise economy or its overall tax revenue. And plaintiff makes no effort to address the economic implications of would-be cruise passengers forgoing a cruise in the absence of the assurances of safety that accompany federal regulation during the ongoing pandemic.”

The idling of the cruise industry has become a hot-button political issue in Florida, with DeSantis regularly criticizing the CDC during public events. DeSantis’ stance on the issue is part of his broader push to open up the economy as the pandemic continues to kill dozens of Floridians a day.

The lawsuit focuses heavily on a “conditional sailing order” that the CDC issued in October with a phased approach to resuming cruise-ship operations. The agency has issued updated guidance, including as recently as this week, though the cruise industry continues to be sidelined in the United States.

Florida alleges that the CDC has violated a law known as the Administrative Procedure Act, which deals, at least in part, with how agencies impose regulations and carry out laws. The state contends that the CDC exceeded its authority and that the conditional sailing order is “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Facts on the ground … contradict the CDC’s reasoning,” the motion for a preliminary injunction said. “The conditional sailing order purportedly seeks to ‘prevent the further introduction, transmission, and spread of COVID-19 into and throughout the United States.’ But the order has caused American cruise passengers to board American flights --- which the CDC has not locked down --- to fly to other countries, cruise, and then fly back to the United States, at which point they need not quarantine.”

But the Justice Department attorneys wrote that the CDC “strongly” advises against Americans going on foreign cruises and recommends they be tested and, in some cases, quarantined upon returning to the United States. More broadly, the attorneys disputed that the agency had acted arbitrarily or overstepped its legal authority.

“Plaintiff’s assertion that the CDC did not consider other alternatives seems to be an assertion that the CDC did not choose its apparently preferred alternative --- to reopen and hope that the cruise lines will adopt adequate health and safety measures on their own,” the document filed this week said. “Reopening with only voluntary health and safety measures that are unproven and untested in U.S. waters during a pandemic is more likely to risk spreading COVID-19 than a supervised approach and was explicitly considered and rejected by the CDC.”

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday in Tampa, where the lawsuit was filed. Pending as of Friday morning was a motion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to intervene in the case on Florida’s side. Like Florida, Texas pointed to the economic impacts of cruise ships being idled.

“Rather than building on the progress health officials have made since the start of this pandemic to allow the cruise industry to operate under reasonable restrictions within its statutory authority, the CDC’s order leaves cruise ships anchored in port while their interests - and those of the many industries that rely on cruise ships sailing - remain at sea,” the Texas motion said.

Photo used under Creative Commons license.

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