Florida sues CDC over cruising as timeline to get cruise ships back in US waters remains unclear

Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that Florida has filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to end the halt on cruise industry operations. 

Cruise ships were prevented from leaving ports with passengers by a no-sail order issued by the CDC more than a year ago. That order was replaced with the agency's "conditional sail order" published in October that requires cruise lines to abide by CDC-instituted phases for a return to cruising but hasn't allowed them to resume sailing yet.

The CDC's plan isn't working fast enough according to, DeSantis.

"Florida is fighting back," the governor said during a briefing at PortMiami, flanked by cruise line employees and state and local officials. "This is not reasonable. This is not rational."

DeSantis insisted that the CDC's shutdown order was still in place and that there is "no end in sight."

"There's really just no end in sight because whatever they do next, the cruise lines aren't even going to sail under some ridiculous order, with having to do all these other things," said DeSantis, adding that the lawsuit demands the federal government open the cruise industry "immediately." 

One step closer to cruising:CDC announces next steps to getting cruise ships back in US waters

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CDC no-sail orders have halted US cruising for more than a year

The CDC shut down the industry in mid-March 2020 when it issued a no-sail order. The ban has been replaced with a "conditional sail order," which requires cruise lines to detail their safety protocols and get permission from the CDC before reopening.

DeSantis said the CDC's order was not preventing people from cruising but instead only putting Florida and U.S. ports at a competitive disadvantage as cruise lines move ships to other parts of the world

"But guess what? People are still going to go on cruises but instead of flying into Miami – spending money to stay in our hotels and spending money to eat in our restaurants before getting on the ship – they are going to fly to the Bahamas and get on the ship in the Bahamas," DeSantis said. "And they are going to spend their money in the Bahamas. How does that make any sense? It's irrational."

Cruise lines need CDC approval of safety plans to sail

On Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line asked the CDC to approve its safety plans but added it would resume cruising in July – just not from U.S. ports, Instead, NCL's Caribbean cruises will depart from ports in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. 

Both DeSantis and others, including U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, cited the proliferation of vaccines as a game-changer that should let ships sail. Gimenez, the former Miami-Dade County mayor, said the CDC position doesn't take into effect the effectiveness and proliferation of vaccines.

But that assertion appears undermined by an executive order issued by DeSantis on April 2 preventing cruise lines and other industries from requiring vaccine documentation in conducting business.

Florida vaccine passport ban:DeSantis' ban confounds cruise lines' reopening plans

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card at Operation Warp Speed headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nov. 13, 2020.

DeSantis' order banning businesses from requiring "vaccine passports" – documents that prove a person has been vaccinated – effectively bars cruise lines operating in Florida from using government-issued vaccine cards as proof.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., parent company to Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises, announced Monday that it would require all passengers and crew on its ships to be "100% vaccinated" two weeks before boarding. Other cruise lines have announced similar vaccination requirements. 

At the news conference Thursday, DeSantis did not mention the impact his executive order has on the industry's efforts to reopen. He held firm that the order would remain in place. Instead blamed the federal government and CDC, repeatedly insisting that the CDC's shut-down order was still in effect.

"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," said DeSantis.

As for his executive order, DeSantis said it's up to American consumers to make their own decisions.

"We're not doing vaccine passports," he said emphatically. "I trust people will make good decisions for themselves."

The governor also said called Florida the "800-pound gorilla" in tourism, adding that whatever action Florida took would be followed by other states. 

DeSantis has prided himself on his anti-lockdown stance, especially getting Florida's tourism industry up and running. His vaccination-passport ban came as a surprise to some, who thought it would help hospitality businesses open to full capacity. To others, the executive order jibes with DeSantis' opposition to government interference in peoples' lives and privacy. 

Cruise industry bailout? Maybe, say Florida leaders, but with hefty conditions

The controversy over the restrictions DeSantis' order placed on cruise lines' boiled over on Monday, when Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava tweeted a statement reading: "Many of our cruise partners at PortMiami are leading the way in announcing their own new policies requiring passengers and crew to be vaccinated."

On Wednesday, Cava issued a statement saying she was encouraged by efforts at the CDC to get ships sailing again. She added: "I look forward to working with the Governor to ensure his executive order does not place undue regulations on the cruise industry partners who are working hard to prepare a safe re-opening."

Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray said he commends DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody for pursuing legal action. Murray said he believes the CDC’s latest guidance for cruise lines “did not move the needle at all” to get cruises restarted.

“That framework is so onerous and so difficult to adhere to that it essentially is a no-sail order, and I’ve dubbed it ‘the impossible-to-sail order,’" said Murray, who oversees a port that is the second-busiest cruise port in the world, behind PortMiami, in terms of pre-pandemic passenger counts. Florida also is home to the third-busiest cruise port, Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades.

Murray said he hopes the state’s legal action will help speed up the return to cruises in the United States, bringing back jobs on the ships and at cruise ports, as well as at landside businesses near cruise terminals that get much of their revenue from cruise passengers, such as hotels, restaurants and retailers.

The cruise line shutdown has “been absolutely devastating for Port Canaveral,” Murray said, with the port cutting 43% of its staff. Port Canaveral has lost $87.6 million in cruise-related revenue from March 2020 through February 2021. Pre-pandemic, cruises and cruise-related parking accounted for about 80% of the port's revenue.

Murray said he hopes the state’s lawsuit will quickly resolve the issue in favor of cruise lines being able to restart operations. But Murray noted that it will take some time, potentially, 75 to 90 days, for cruise lines to be able to bring back their international crews, which can number 2,500 or more per ship, from countries throughout the world, and get the ships ready to sail.

Contributing: David Berman, USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA