Judge refers Florida’s cruise line suit against CDC to mediator

Cruise lines, their customers, the state of Florida and the U.S. government will have to wait a little longer to learn whether a federal order keeping ships idled can stand.

A Tampa federal judge overseeing the state’s civil case against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention referred the matter to a mediator Tuesday with instructions to hear the positions of both sides before June 1.

Mediators are typically summoned in the hopes of coaxing both sides into settling their differences outside the court.

The lawsuit, filed April 8 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, names as defendants the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the agencies’ appointed leaders. It claims the CDC’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines for cruise ships are “arbitrary and capricious,” unconstitutional, and violate federal laws governing administrative procedures.

Last Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday held a three-hour, 49-minute hearing on the matter.

Lawyers from the Florida attorney general’s office argued the agency overstepped its authority by imposing a multi-step process for cruise lines to safely resume operating from U.S. ports after more than year of no service.

The industry shut down in March 2020 after a number of passengers aboard its ships contracted the coronavirus. Since then, the state argued in its lawsuit, the industry and local economies have suffered catastrophic financial losses.

Florida Gov, Ron DeSantis, who for months has advocated the elimination of COVID-related restrictions on businesses and industries around the state, has vigorously opposed the process the CDC established for resuming cruises.

Justice Department lawyers countered that the state has no authority to dictate when and where the companies can resume service. In court papers, government lawyers also said the state had allowed an entire year to pass without taking any action.

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Although Merryday told both sides he would try to expedite a decision, he named Tampa attorney Joseph H. Varner III to serve as mediator with another local lawyer, James Percival, serving as his lead attorney.

The judge also allowed the American Society of Travel Advisors, a Washington-based trade group of travel agents, to file a friend of the court brief to support the state’s argument about economic damages suffered by the industry and communities outside Florida. The federal government opposed the filing, arguing in court papers that ASTA’s request came too late under court rules.

But in a separate order Tuesday, Merryday gave the group until Friday to file its papers.

“Plainly, the outcome of this case will affect far more Americans than just the 159,000 Floridians whose livelihoods are tied in one way or another to the cruise industry,” ASTA lawyers wrote in their petition to be heard.. “Indeed, they represent but a small percentage of those impacted by the defendants’ actions when viewed in strictly economic terms.

“That being said, the impact goes well beyond the economic, as this case raises broader and concerns about the freedom of individuals to travel as they see fit and infringes upon their fundamental rights,” ASTA asserted.

“This aspect is particularly worthy of the court’s serious consideration given that the defendants, as administrative agencies, have been largely unchecked and are, for all intents and purposes, unaccountable for the consequences of their actions,” the society’s lawyers added. “Should ASTA be permitted to intervene … it will provide a broader analysis of the situation from the perspective of both the industry outside of Florida as well as the traveling public at large.”

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