Cruise lines that operate from Florida ports have no intention of violating federal health and safety guidelines even as Gov. DeSantis’ celebrates a recent court ruling stripping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of authority over cruising in the state.
All major cruise lines intend to voluntarily remain in compliance with the CDC’s guidelines for resuming cruises, according to both the CDC and the trade organization Cruise Lines International Association.
That means cruise lines will continue to ask passengers to provide proof they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus. They’ll continue to require unvaccinated customers to purchase travel insurance, wear masks indoors on the ship and practice social distancing.
They’ll continue to follow complicated protocols for routine testing of ship workers, passenger screenings, cleaning and disinfecting, food handling, agreements with ports for evacuation, quarantining of sick travelers and more.
Cruise lines’ decision to stick with the CDC leaves DeSantis pursuing a lawsuit the lines neither asked for nor joined. Originally filed in April in response to complaints that the CDC wasn’t communicating what cruise lines needed to do to resume sailing this summer, the lawsuit no longer matters to the industry.
Cruises are resuming under CDC guidance. And DeSantis has been left to argue that the suit is really about preventing federal agencies from shutting down industries without “explicitly delineated” legal authority.
“He has always said, even before he was governor, that citizens’ lives should not be ruled by unelected bureaucrats,” DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said by email.
And on that point, DeSantis seems poised to win. In June, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday granted the state’s request for a preliminary injunction that removed the CDC’s authority pending the suit’s outcome. In granting the injunction, Merryday found that Florida was likely to prevail in its argument that the CDC overstepped its legal authority by preventing cruise ships from sailing with passengers since March 2020.
The CDC appealed the injunction, and a 2-1 appellate court ruling delayed it from taking effect for six days. Then the appellate court inexplicably reversed itself on July 23, allowing the injunction to take effect and giving DeSantis another political victory.
But how much of a victory was it? Cruise lines wasted little time after the latest ruling assuring customers of their intention to follow the CDC’s guidelines.
“And so it continues! We will continue to voluntarily follow all CDC guidelines and recommendations,” Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley said in a Facebook post after the latest court ruling.
Carnival Corp., parent company of Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Seabourn and several others, issued a statement declaring that the CDC’s guidelines “remain in effect throughout the U.S. and, in Florida, its guidelines are effective as recommendations.”
Carnival’s statement called the appellate court ruling “part of a broader legal challenge that may not be settled for some time” and said while litigation continues, “we intend to follow protocols consistent with [the CDC’s] guidelines.”
On Tuesday, the consumer-focused website CruiseCritic.com reported that Norwegian Cruise Line’s president and CEO stated that Norwegian intended to voluntarily comply with CDC protocols. The cruise line did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Norwegian, which plans to resume sailing from Florida ports in August, filed its own suit earlier this month, but not against the CDC. The company is challenging Florida’s authority to prohibit cruise lines from requiring that passengers show proof of vaccination before boarding.
The Cruise Lines International Association, mindful that the industry remains under CDC authority in all other states with cruise ports, released its own statement recognizing the agency as “the nation’s leading health authority” and stressed that all ships resuming operations from Florida and all U.S. ports would “continue to operate in accordance with public health protocols that prioritize the health and safety of passengers, crew and the communities we visit.”
On the same day that the appellate court ruling gave DeSantis his most recent victory, the CDC sent letters to cruise lines asking them to identify if their ships would voluntarily comply with its guidelines. The letter warned of a cost for not voluntarily complying: Under CDC rules governing other transportation industries, uncooperative ships could be subject to shipwide mask mandates, lengthy sanitation delays if passengers get infected, and a CDC declaration that it can’t confirm that the ship is following its health and safety standards.
The state immediately asked Judge Merryday to declare that the letter violated the injunction by trying to “coerce” compliance with its protocols.
On July 26, Merryday declined to rule that the CDC’s letter violated the injunction. But he left open the possibility of a future ruling if the agency exhibits a pattern of “vexatious, harassing, coercive, discriminatory, bad faith, or retaliatory conduct” meant to punish a ship operator for not voluntarily complying with its guidelines.
That shouldn’t be a problem, based on a CDC statement on Tuesday affirming that “all Florida-porting ships” have chosen to voluntarily follow its guidelines, even as nonbinding recommendations.”
The guidelines, “informed by the best available public health science and developed with input from cruise industry colleagues — represent the most effective way of continuing to protect the public’s health,” the CDC’s statement said.
Christine Gray Faust, Cruise Critic’s managing editor, said by email that cooperation between the cruise lines and the CDC seems to be working.
“To date, the protocols have also gone over well with cruise line customers, helping to ensure confidence in the safety of a cruise vacation,” she said.
That leaves Norwegian’s suit against DeSantis’ vaccine passport ban as the only one that could affect cruising in Florida later this year.
Norwegian, which has vowed to resume sailing with 100% vaccinated passengers and crew members, called the state’s vaccine passport ban a “misguided intrusion” into the company’s right to operate under CDC guidelines.
Whether or not cruise lines continue to follow CDC guidelines, DeSantis has already gotten what he wanted out of the state’s lawsuit against the CDC, says Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor.
“He showed his base — which, of course, is really Donald Trump’s base — that he is not afraid to take on ‘radical federal bureaucrats and scientists’ who want to keep the U.S. economy on lockdown,” Jarvis said, adding that message should resonate with followers during his 2022 reelection campaign as well as a possible presidential run in 2024.
“DeSantis plans to present himself as the Trump who actually gets things done. In this political environment, that’s a powerful branding message, although as recent Republican polls indicate, not enough to actually beat Trump.”
Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by email at email@example.com, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by phone at 954-356-4071.