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State of Florida Suing the Federal Government Over Cruise Industry Shutdown

The past week has been a wild one for cruising in the US: The cruise industry pleaded with the CDC to stop it's months of radio-silence on it's Conditional Sailing Order. The CDC then finally provided technical instructions as a 'next step', but with no clear end in sight. Some cruise lines announced they'd sail the Caribbean without the US support. NCL proposed US fully-vaccinated sailings in July. The Florida governor said that private business can't require vaccines.  With all this, cruising from the US remains uncertain, while packed bars, flights, and hotels have gone with little or no regulation. Now, the State of Florida announced that it is suing the federal government over the shutdown of the cruise industry.  

The Lawsuit

This morning, just before a press conference in Miami, announcing legal action, Florida filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to force the reopening of Florida’s cruise industry.  “I don’t think the federal government has the right to mothball an industry for more than a year based on very little evidence and very little data,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.  He also touted the success of the COVID-19 vaccine, saying that this alone was enough to justify a return to sailing.

Success, in the eyes of this suit, would seem to be the dropping of the CDC's Conditional Sail Order, which requires lines complete a series of steps to be potentially allowed to sail.  

Taking a Step Back

The cruise industry has operated safely in Europe and Asia since last summer, but the CDC's efforts to work with the cruise industry have moved at a glacial pace, and their current guidance seems a bit out of step with our current knowledge of hwo the disease spreads, and the availability of vaccine.  In fact, the CDC guidance, which can't yet be acted on by lines, doesn't even require vaccines.  As cruise lines continue to push for a safe restart to cruising, several, including Virgin Voyages, NCL, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and others, have proposed sailing with vaccinated guests in addition numerous safety measures proven effective in other countries, where almost 400,000 guests have cruised since the summer, and fewer than 50 infections have occurred.  

Why Lines Can't Sail

The current CDC guidance not only has some requirements that are challenging to meet, and questionable in efficacy, but they've taken five months to provide the instructions to get to the next steps - which include test voyages.  In fact, the pace has been so slow it's reminiscent of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, where the government said something required steps to be completed to make something legal, but then failed to take those steps.  This means the industry has lost a lot of time, and there are fears that the test voyages might not be approved for months.

CDC sign

Sailing with the already vetted protocols AND vaccinations would seem an obvious win for guest and crew safety as well as for the businesses - but that can't happen yet either.  For one, the CDC, rather surprisingly, doesn't have a plan outlines for vaccinated sailings to commence.  The second problem is that while Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been a vocal advocate for the cruise industry in the past couple of weeks, his assertion (and executive order) that the cruise lines, which are private businesses, cannot require guests to be vaccinated, could very possibly keep lines from operating even if the CDC were to quickly approve a plan that would allow vaccinated persons to cruise from US ports.  This already controversial move could prove incredibly politically unpopular with the 1.6 million Floridians who work in travel and tourism.

What's Next?

It's becoming a circus, but we see two significant possibilities at the moment.  Possibility one is that the CDC re-evaluates some of the requirements to bring them up to speed with our modern understandings of the virus, and issues guidance the industry finds more manageable, and then progresses with next steps rather rapidly.  Possibility two is that the CDC approves a more workable plan that includes the allowance of fully vaccinated sailings only.  This would seem to almost certainly lead to a legal standoff between the cruise industry and the Governor DeSantis.  That's right, if DeSantis' actions get the cruise industry federal approval to operate, it would be the state of Florida that would then be the ones stopping the industry's return.

No matter what happens, the cruise industry has a massive interest in ensuring the safe return of cruising, so you're likely to see the industry operate with the most stringent requirements practically possible - perhaps even more so than in Europe and Asia.  Until the CDC allows for sailings however, and likely, the State of Florida allows private businesses to request proof of vaccination, US ports and the businesses that depend on them, remain high and dry.  Who is blamed may depend on whether it's the state or the feds that blink first.