State of Florida Sues Adminstration, CDC Over Cruise Ship Shut-Down

On Thursday, Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, announced that the state had filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Biden Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), citing what it calls "an unlawful" "Conditional Sailing" Order (COS) that's prevented the cruise industry from restarting voyages from Florida ports. 

In its press release, the state said that "this unprecedented, year-long lockdown of an entire industry by the federal government has directly harmed the State of Florida, its citizens and their families, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars in economic activity."

Florida is home to PortMiami, the world's biggest cruise port by passenger volume, as well as two other cruise powerhouses (Nos. 2 and 3 on that list)—Port Canaveral along the Space Coast and Port Everglades in Greater Fort Lauderdale. Passengers also embark on large cruise ships at the Port of Tampa and the Port of Jacksonville.

Citing Economic Devastation 

"The economic devastation wrought by the CDC’s 'Conditional Sailing' Order cannot be overstated," the state's press release said—offering the following statistics:

  • A September 2020 report from the Federal Maritime Commission estimated that during the first six months of the pandemic, losses in Florida due to the cruise industry shutdown totaled $3.2 billion in economic activity, including 49,500 jobs paying $2.3 billion in wages
  • To date, more than 6,000 former cruise industry employees have filed for state unemployment
  • Since the CDC’s shutdown went into effect, Florida’s seaports have suffered a decline in operating revenue of almost $300 million, and this figure is projection to increase to nearly $400 million in July of 2021
  • Projections show that Florida’s cruise industry could have produced over $150 million in state and local tax revenues in the 2020-2021 fiscal cruise year.

Unprecedented Lockdown

“We must allow our cruise liners and their employees to get back to work and safely set sail again,” said Governor DeSantis. “To be clear, no federal law authorizes the CDC to indefinitely impose a nationwide shutdown of an entire industry. This lawsuit is necessary to protect Floridians from the federal government’s overreach and resulting economic harm to our state.”

Said Ashley Moody, Florida's attorney general: “Cruises are a vital part of Florida’s tourism industry—employing thousands and boosting our state’s economy. Every day the federal government unfairly keeps this economic giant docked, our economy suffers. The ripple effect of this misguided federal lockdown has far-reaching implications for the cruise industry, international tourism, businesses that would benefit from the influx of visitors, our state’s economy and the thousands of Floridians who work in the industry."

Mounting Tensions

Tensions have been mounting for months. The COS was issued in late October 2020 but the CDC did not provide the kind of technical information the lines needed to restart operations. Last week, the CDC provided some additional details for that COS, but not all that's needed to begin test cruises, which the CDC had previously said it would require.

In response, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) issued a statement, calling the new rules "burdensome" and "largely unworkable," and citing discriminatory treatment of cruise operations when compared with other industry segments such as airlines or hotels.

Yesterday, after the State of Florida's lawsuit was filed, Travel Agent asked CLIA for further comment. Here's what the trade association, which represents the overwhelming majority of global cruise lines, said: "CLIA is grateful for Governor DeSantis’ support of the cruise community and we appreciate his efforts to restart cruising safely. Tens of thousands of Floridians rely on cruising for their livelihoods, including longshoremen, taxi drivers, travel agents and tour operators, ports, and numerous suppliers and vendors that make the cruise industry work." 

But CLIA also emphasized that, "ultimately, the CDC and the entire U.S. cruise community want the same thing—the responsible resumption of cruising from the U.S. this summer." The association told Travel Agent that the entire cruise community remains focused on dialogue with the CDC and the Biden Administration to pursue a workable path to cruising by the beginning of July.

Florida's Points 

The State of Florida press release about the lawsuit said that the CDC’s COS harms the state and its citizens in at least four ways:

  • Prevents numerous businesses and employees from earning a living
  • Contributes to the state’s unemployment
  • Exacerbates the massive shortfalls in revenues experienced by seaports
  • Reduced state and local taxes associated with the cruise industry

Florida's press release also said the COS effectively prohibits cruising and does not take into account that "COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, that other countries have safely and successfully resumed cruise sailings, and that other industries like airlines, bus lines, hotels, restaurants, universities, theme parks, casinos and bars have successfully reopened."

Industry Reaction

Roger Frizzell, senior vice president and chief communications officer, Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise company, said when asked about the State of Florida's action: "We are aware of the lawsuit and share the sense of urgency of getting Americans back to work. Our focus is trying to work with the CDC on a plan to resume cruise operations this summer."

Zane Kerby, president and CEO, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), released a robust statement about what it termed the CDC's "continued inaction in removing restrictions on cruise travel" and the Florida lawsuit announcement.

“Last October, CDC replaced its March 2020 'No Sail' Order with a 'Framework for Conditional Sailing' Order. At the time, many in the travel industry saw it as a sign of real progress toward the resumption of cruise travel," he said. "Six months later, despite more than 170 million vaccines administered, falling infection and mortality rates in most states, political inquiry and pressure, including a lawsuit from Florida’s Governor, the CDC has taken little substantive action and, by all appearances, maintains that cruising cannot be resumed safely."

Kerby's statement continued: "We find the CDC’s position singling out cruising perplexing given that nearly every other group activity one can envision—from attending sporting events to dining indoors in restaurants, to visiting movie theaters and gyms, not to mention traveling by air and staying in hotels—has already resumed safely with masking requirements and social distancing protocols in place."

ASTA pointed out that with state-of-the-art medical facilities and medical staff onboard ships, cruise lines are positioned to deal with many challenges, including COVID-19. "Their thorough protocols have been effective, as we have seen in both Asia and Europe, where cruising has already resumed," Kerby noted. "Out of 400,000 passengers, there have been only 50 cases of on-board infection, an exceedingly low rate, and with zero fatalities."

In addition, ASTA stressed that no government assistance was needed to manage those rare instances because they were managed properly by the cruise lines and never escalated to the point of needing outside intervention. Kerby's statement also said that even the CDC itself announced last week that those who have been vaccinated are at low risk to spread infection and can resume domestic travel as long as they adhere to social distancing and masking protocols.

"Why this pronouncement applies to the 1.5 million airline passengers flying every day, but does not apply to those who would choose to cruise, is arbitrary and capricious," Kerby stressed. "It is long past time for the CDC to issue the guidance needed to permit sailing to resume or rescind the order in its entirety."

ASTA also said it also stated that in a letter to Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of the White House's COVID-19 Recovery Team. More than 150,000 American travel advisors are the worldwide sales channel for the cruise industry, and ASTA said it stands with U.S. Congressional officials and CLIA in "urging immediate action" by the CDC. 

It also expressed support for the legal action to being taken by Governor DeSantis to immediately rescind the CDC’s 'Conditional Sailing' Order."

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