Judge denies CDC request to keep COVID-19 cruise rules in place during appeal

A federal judge denied a request Wednesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to keep its COVID-19 safety regulations for Florida cruises in effect, clearing the path for them to turn into simply recommendations on July 18.

The CDC asked U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida to lift the deadline — part of a preliminary injunction he put in place last month after Gov. Ron DeSantis sued the CDC in April — while the case goes through the appeal process. The CDC argues that without its regulations, cruise ships could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Merryday said in his ruling Wednesday that the CDC’s argument ignores state and local oversight and the improvements cruise companies have made to their operations since COVID-19 outbreaks caused deaths on several ships last year.

“CDC fails to demonstrate that denial of the stay will injure materially CDC or the United States, any third party, or the public,” Merryday wrote. “...This action is about the use and misuse of governmental power.”

Cruise companies first shut down operations in March 2020. In October, the CDC issued a framework to get cruises restarted called the “conditional sail order,” which required them to beef up testing capabilities on their ships and secure evacuation agreements with U.S. cities they plan to visit, among other things.

Frustrated by the slow progress of the conditional sail order, DeSantis sued the CDC on April 8, arguing that the cruise companies should be able to resume cruises immediately without any CDC oversight. The state said the agency is unfairly targeting the cruise industry and preventing Florida from collecting important tax revenue. Merryday agreed and approved DeSantis’ request for a preliminary injunction on June 18, which orders the agency’s rules for cruises from Florida ports to become recommendations for companies on July 18.

Instead of submitting a narrower set of regulations to Merryday for his approval, on Tuesday the CDC appealed his preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Meanwhile, cruises from Florida ports have already restarted under the “conditional sail order.” The Celebrity Edge cruise ship left Port Everglades with paying passengers on June 26, followed by Freedom of the Seas from PortMiami on July 2 and Carnival Horizon from PortMiami on July 4.