Three judges on the U.S. Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit on Friday vacated their decision issued last weekend that allowed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to enforce its cruise COVID-19 safety rules in Florida.
Just before the 11th Circuit’s reversal, Florida asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and reverse the appeals court’s decision from last Saturday.
The 11th Circuit judges — Judges Jill Pryor, Charles Wilson and Elizabeth Branch — did not provide an explanation for why they reversed their decision just six days after issuing it, saying only that the CDC “failed to demonstrate an entitlement to a stay pending appeal.”
“Today, following Florida’s application to the United States Supreme Court, we were excited to see the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reverse its prior order and free the cruise lines from the unlawful CDC mandates,” said Taryn Fenske, spokesperson for Governor Ron DeSantis, in an email. “The cruise industry is free to safely set sail again!”
Cruises restarted from Florida ports under the CDC’s regulations last month. Friday’s decision does not impact cruises that leave from other states.
The CDC did not have an immediate comment on the actions Friday by the appellate court judges or the state of Florida.
Larry Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization’s center on global health law, said the reversal lacks transparency. Gostin previously said Florida’s lawsuit against the CDC had little to no viability.
“The facts and the law today are exactly the same as the facts and the law several days ago,” said Gostin. “Judges are supposed to make decisions based on the facts and the law. They’re acting like their decision doesn’t matter, and this is a highly consequential case that is a life or death situation.”
Florida first sued the CDC in April, asking a federal judge in Tampa to get rid of the agency’s safety rules for cruises operating from Florida ports. The rules require cruise companies to have COVID-19 tests on board, secure evacuation agreements with ports they plan to visit and perform test cruises if they are operating with less than 95% of crew and passengers vaccinated against COVID-19, among other things.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida sided with the state, saying the CDC did not sufficiently justify the need for its regulations that are causing Florida “economic harm.” He ordered the regulations to turn into recommendations for cruise companies by July 18. The CDC appealed Merryday’s decision to the 11th Circuit.
At 11:50 p.m. on Saturday, the three-judge panel of 11th Circuit judges sided with the CDC in a 2-1 decision, blocking Merryday’s order and keeping the agency’s regulations in place. The judges’ order said opinions would follow.
But before the judges filed any opinions, they vacated their earlier order. Almost simultaneously, Florida appealed the earlier 11th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If the stay is not vacated now, Florida is all but guaranteed to lose yet another summer cruise season while the CDC pursues its appeal,” the state said in its filing.
The zig-zagging court decisions come as cruise companies are trying to restore consumer confidence in cruising, which resumed from U.S. ports in June after a 15-month hiatus. Even with the CDC’s regulations in place, COVID-19 persists on cruise ships. As of Friday, nearly one in four ocean cruise ships in U.S. waters or planning to come into U.S. waters soon had reported a COVID-19 infection to the CDC in the last seven days.
In a separate pending court case, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is suing Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, asking a federal judge in Miami to allow the company to require its passengers provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination despite a recently passed state law that bars it from doing so. Last week, Norwegian encouraged the 11th Circuit to keep the CDC’s cruise regulations in place.
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of one of the 11th Circuit judges involved in the decision about CDC rules. It was Judge Jill Pryor, not Chief Judge William Pryor.