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In last minute ruling, federal appeals court keeps COVID rules in place for Florida-based cruise ships

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Cruise ship returns with groundbreaking capta... 01:49

St. Petersburg, Florida — Pandemic restrictions on Florida-based cruise ships will remain in place for now after a federal appeals court temporarily blocked a previous ruling that sided with a Florida lawsuit challenging the regulations.

The one-paragraph decision by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filed at 11:50 p.m. Saturday, just minutes before a Tampa judge's previous ruling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restrictions was set to take effect.

The judges' issuance of a temporary stay keeps the CDC regulations regarding Florida-based cruise ships in place while the CDC appeals the June decision by U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.

The lawsuit, championed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, claims that the CDC's multiple-step process to allow cruising from Florida is overly burdensome, harming both a multibillion-dollar industry that provides some 159,000 jobs and revenue collected by the state.

A spokeswoman for DeSantis didn't immediately respond Sunday to an email and a text message from The Associated Press seeking comment. In a court filing, attorneys for Florida urged the 11th Circuit to reject the CDC request to keep its rules intact for now.

"The equities overwhelmingly favor allowing the cruise industry to enjoy its first summer season in two years while this Court sorts out the CDC's contentions on appeal," Florida's lawyers argued.

Royal Caribbean Departs On First Simulated Voyage
The Royal Caribbean Cruises Freedom of the Seas departs for a simulated voyage from PortMiami in Miami on June 20, 2021.  Eva Marie Uzcategui / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The CDC, however, said keeping the rules in place would prevent future COVID-19 outbreaks on ships that are vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of their close quarters and frequent stops at foreign ports.

"The undisputed evidence shows that unregulated cruise ship operations would exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, and that the harm to the public that would result from such operations cannot be undone," the CDC said in a court filing.

The court actions came with Florida among states seeing a significant jump in the number of new COVID-19 cases due largely to the more contagious Delta variant and large percentages of unvaccinated residents. CBS Miami says Florida reported an 11 percent increase in Delta variant COVID cases from July 9 to 17.

Florida reported 20 percent of the nation's new coronavirus cases over the last two weeks even though it makes up just 6.5% of the population.

The CDC first flatly halted cruise ships from sailing in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which had affected passengers and crew on numerous ships.

Then the CDC on Oct. 30 of last year imposed a four-phase conditional framework it said would allow the industry to gradually resume operations if certain thresholds were met. Those included virus mitigation procedures and a simulated cruise to test them before embarking regular passengers.

Merryday's decision concluded that the CDC can't enforce those rules for Florida-based ships and that they should merely be considered nonbinding recommendations or guidelines. Several cruise lines have begun preliminary cruises under those guidelines, which the Tampa judge agreed with Florida are too onerous.

"Florida persuasively claims that the conditional sailing order will shut down most cruises through the summer and perhaps much longer," the judge wrote in June, adding that Florida "faces an increasingly threatening and imminent prospect that the cruise industry will depart the state."

The 11th Circuit's brief decision didn't include any opinions from the judges, which the panel said would be released later. The decision noted that one appeals judge dissented.

Disney Cruise Lines held its first simulated sailing under CDC rules Saturday when the Disney Dream departed from Port Canaveral, Florida. The passengers were volunteer Disney employees.

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