MIAMI - Arguing that Florida is at risk of losing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody on Thursday filed a lawsuit against federal health officials for sidelining the cruise industry.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Tampa, asks a federal judge to lift restrictions imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have idled cruise ships in the U.S. for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"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," DeSantis said during a news conference in Miami, where he was joined by Moody and more than a dozen cruise-industry workers.
The lawsuit came after guidance released Monday by the CDC recommending that all staff members and travelers be vaccinated before going on cruise ships. The recommendations did not mandate vaccinations but require that masks be worn aboard cruise ships.
Since the end of October, the cruise industry has been under a conditional sail order that outlines a phased approach to resuming operations in U.S. waters, starting with testing and additional safeguards for crew members. The October protocols, issued by former President Donald Trump’s administration, are slated to remain in effect until Nov. 1.
"There’s really just no end in sight, because whatever they do next, it’s probably going to be so cumbersome that the cruise lines aren’t even gonna be able to sail under some ridiculous order having to do all these other things," DeSantis said Thursday.
The lawsuit, which names CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and her agency, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and the Biden administration as defendants, accuses federal health officials of governmental overreach by imposing lengthy restrictions on the industry.
"The CDC does not have the authority to issue year-and-a-half-long nationwide lockdowns of entire industries. And even if it did, its actions here are arbitrary and capricious and otherwise violate the Administrative Procedures Act," the 21-page lawsuit said. "Absent this court’s intervention, Florida will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. And, more importantly, the approximately 159,000 hard-working Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry could lose everything."
Moody joined DeSantis in slamming Biden’s administration for not lifting cruise restrictions as the number of people who have received COVID-19 vaccinations continues to rise and mortality rates associated with the virus are down.
"We have people floundering … We are losing tax revenue. People’s lives are on the line. They are desperate to return to work, and we will not sit back in Florida while the freedom of people’s lives and their businesses are at stake," Moody told reporters.
Cruise operators have resumed sailing in other parts of the world, such as Europe and the Bahamas, and other travel industries "have reopened successfully with reasonable COVID-19 protocols," the lawsuit said.
"But as these industries begin to restart and rebuild, the cruise industry has been singled out, and unlike the rest of America, prevented from reopening," the state’s lawyers argued. "As a result, the industry is on the brink of financial ruin."
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. Cruise ships were idled last year after high-profile COVID-19 outbreaks aboard ships early in the pandemic.
No cruise company in the U.S. has begun the two-phase test voyages that are part of the four-phase protocol released by the CDC in the fall, according to the lawsuit.
PortMiami, Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades are three of the top cruise ports in the world, with large passenger ships also operating out of the Port of Tampa Bay, the Port of Palm Beach and JaxPort. Sixty percent of the nation’s cruises set sail from the Sunshine State, according to the lawsuit.
Preventing cruise ships from sailing has a "ripple" effect on other industries, such as airlines, hotels and restaurants, and is tamping down Florida’s economic rebound, Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez, a former Miami-Dade County mayor, said at Thursday’s news conference.
Gimenez said he has reached out repeatedly to federal health officials in an attempt to get the cruise industry afloat again.
"Time and time again the CDC has decided to ignore us on this issue. They’re sailing in Asia. They’re sailing in Europe. And the United States is actually the leader in vaccinations. It’s time to let these ships sail. It’s time to let these people get back to work," he said.
Federal officials’ approach to the cruise industry is forcing voyagers to spend their money elsewhere, DeSantis argued.
"Our view is, people can make the decisions that they want to make. People are going to cruise one way or another. The question is, are we going to do it out of Florida, which is the number one place to do it in the world, or are they going to be doing it out of the Bahamas or other locations," he said.
In hopes of sailing again soon, many cruise lines already have instituted such policies as requiring staff members and passengers to be vaccinated, as recommended by the CDC on Monday.
But the protocols run afoul of an executive order DeSantis issued last week banning the use of COVID-19 "passports," a stance he emphasized on Thursday.
"We’re not doing vaccine passports in Florida. It’s not necessary. It causes a huge amount of problems," the Republican governor said. "You have a right to live your life in our society. You can go to a restaurant. You can get on a cruise ship. You can go to a movie theater, without the company demanding that you show them your health information."