Judge Orders Mediation in Florida’s Lawsuit to Restart U.S. Cruising
A federal court judge ordered mediation in an attempt to settle Florida’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Conditional Sail Order. In doing so, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday has recognized that Florida raised legitimate concerns in the legal action it started in April, and which was joined by Alaska and Texas, but refused the states’ efforts to immediately block the CDC and permit cruising to resume from U.S. ports.
Under the terms of the judge’s order, both sides must present a written summary of their issues and meet by June 1 with a Tampa lawyer that the court has appointed as the mediator. The mediation will continue until adjourned by the mediator. The mediator is required to report to the court within seven days after the mediation the results and whether some or all of the issues were resolved. Only the mediator may declare an impasse or end the mediation.
At issue is Florida’s contention that the CDC overstepped its authority with its efforts that continue to prevent the cruise industry from restarting trips from U.S. ports. The three states argued that the CDC has caused significant harm in lost revenues and taxes as well as creating an increased unemployment burden on the states by preventing the cruise industry from resuming trips. The states also argued to the court that the CDC’s efforts are open-ended without a clear timeline for the industry to restart operations.
The CDC cited its mandate to broadly protect public health and its increased communication with the cruise industry as the number of COVID-19 cases declined across the United States. The CDC told the court that the cruise industry’s fate is now in the hands of the lines based on the framework that was recently released that detailed the steps remaining for U.S. cruises to restart. The CDC has continued to refine the framework and respond to concerns and questions from representatives of the cruise lines.
The cruise lines have to resolve their plans and reach agreements with the ports and jurisdictions where they plan to operate and submit those agreements to the CDC. The CDC cites the cruise ships that became trapped at sea in 2020 after outbreaks of the virus onboard and the potential for a cruise ship to overload the local healthcare infrastructure. After completing those steps, cruise lines would either have to operate simulated cruises to demonstrate to the CDC the effectiveness of their protocols, or they can skip the simulated cruises if they attest to the CDC that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers on each trip are fully vaccinated for the virus.
Hearing agreements in the case last week Judge Merryday questioned the states’ timing for the lawsuit noting that the CSO had been in place since last October and before that the CDC had its No Sail Order. The judge also asked the states what steps they had in place to ensure safety and public health as well as for oversight of the cruise lines. Florida largely responded pointing to the cruise industry’s efforts and saying it was a self-governing industry. The judge also questioned the CDC’s efforts, the steps, and the timeline required to restart cruising. The CDC has repeatedly said in recent weeks that it believes cruises could sail this summer from U.S. ports.
The mediation does not ensure a resolution in the case but also delayed Florida’s request for an immediate injunction against the CDC.
The two sides also remain at odds over the vaccination requirement. The CDC’s protocols encourage the cruise lines to resume operations within the fully vaccinated stipulation while the state of Florida has barred businesses' ability to require vaccine passports as evidence of vaccination status. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ CEO and President Frank Del Rio spoke to the issue saying he was hopeful a compromise could be found but noted that the company could reposition its ships to other ports. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis dismissed that as an idel threat saying Florida is the cruise capital of the world and Florida could replace “small cruise lines.” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings currently has a fleet of 28 cruise ships with a total of more than 59,000 berths making it the industry’s third-largest company.
Observers to the case and cruise industry noted that the mediation process would require a month during which time additional clarity should emerge to the cruise lines’ restart plans.