Law360 (April 8, 2021, 9:25 PM EDT) -- The state of Florida sued the federal government Thursday, seeking to overturn a now yearlong ban on cruises due to the COVID-19 pandemic that it says is unjustifiable and threatens irreparable harm to the industry, the state's economy and thousands of workers.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody announced the legal action during a press conference at PortMiami, accompanied by other Florida officials and cruise industry workers but no representatives from the cruise lines.
"Our cruise ships must be reopened immediately," DeSantis said. "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."
Cruise lines voluntarily suspended operations in early March 2020 after several shipboard outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a nationwide No Sail Order later that month. The CDC has since renewed its restrictions several times, most recently in the form of a Conditional Sailing Order on Oct. 30 that established a four-phase process for cruise lines to reopen.
In its suit, which names the CDC, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their respective leaders as defendants, Florida contends that the CSO, which is effective until Nov. 1, 2021, ignores more recent developments, such as vaccine approval and widespread distribution, a return to cruising in other parts of the world and the CDC's disparate treatment of other entities — such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, universities and theme parks — that it says have reopened successfully with reasonable COVID-19 protocols.
"People are still going to go on cruises," DeSantis said during Thursday's press conference. "Instead of flying to Miami, spending money to stay in our hotels, spending money to eat in our restaurants before they get on the ship, they're going to fly to the Bahamas, and they're going to get on the ships from the Bahamas, and they're going to spend money in the Bahamas. And they're going to do the same thing they would have done, it just won't be helping the state of Florida and it won't be helping our folks here who really depend on it."
The state's complaint, which was filed in federal court in Tampa, claims the CSO constitutes an unconstitutional exercise of legislative power and violates the Administrative Procedure Act as an arbitrary and capricious agency action by the CDC that exceeds its authority. It says the agency's reasoning was inadequate and that it failed to allow for proper comment, consider lesser alternatives or explain its differentiated treatment of the cruise industry.
The complaint also claims the federal government's actions have caused Florida to suffer hundreds of millions of dollars in harm between declines in port operating revenues and taxes collected on embarkations to costs for providing unemployment benefits to thousands of former cruise industry employees.
The suit also alleges that the cruise industry is on the brink of financial ruin and that a failure to reopen U.S. ports could result in companies relocating abroad and never coming back.
At Thursday's press conference, U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., a former mayor of Miami-Dade County, also spoke about how the lockdown causes a ripple effect on airports, hotels and even farms that restock the cruise ships.
"This irresponsible decision by the federal bureaucrats who have no concept of what is actually happening out in the real world is deeply hurting South Florida," he said.
Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and the Washington-based Cruise Lines International Association, a leading trade association, declined through spokespeople to comment on the litigation as nonparties, but both said they would continue to work with the CDC on ending the CSO.
"We look forward to partnering with the CDC to engage in meaningful discussions," Norwegian said in a statement. "We believe the time has come for cruising to resume from U.S. ports. Our proposed plan, including 100% vaccinations of guests and crew, universal testing and multi-layered health and safety protocols, is consistent with the CDC's updated travel guidance."
Anne Madison, a CLIA spokeswoman, said the organization also remains focused on dialog between interested parties and the CDC and the Biden administration to pursue a workable path to cruising by July.
"Our request continues to be to lift the CSO and replace it with a workable solution — treating cruise like all other travel and tourism sectors," she said.
Florida-based lawyers who specialize in cruise industry issues expressed doubts about the merits of the suit but said that the Republican governor's move could help push matters forward.
"I think the chances of success from a strictly legal perspective are tiny. The CDC has a broad mandate to keep our citizens safe from disease, and I don't see a judge infringing on the CDC's discretionary functions," Michael Winkleman of Lipcon Margulies & Winkleman PA told Law360.
But he added, "From a public perception perspective, I do think the lawsuit is helpful in terms of shaping public opinion on the matter and 'coaxing' the CDC to make a workable framework for cruise ships to sail by the summer."
Fellow Miami-based lawyer Curtis Mase of Mase Mebane said that "one need look no further than the airline industry, Disney World or Las Vegas to see the glaring lack of similar, onerous governmental restrictions."
Representatives for the CDC and HHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The state of Florida is represented by Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Deputy Attorney General John Guard, Chief Deputy Solicitor General James H. Percival, Assistant Solicitor General Jason H. Hilborn and Senior Assistant Attorney General Anita Patel.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is State of Florida v. Becerra et al., case number 8:21-cv-839, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
--Editing by Andrew Cohen.
For a reprint of this article, please contact email@example.com.