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CDC fights to maintain cruise COVID-19 guidelines in place, warns of elevated virus unfold

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is fighting to keep its COVID-19 cruise regulations in place and warned a federal judge that without them, there is increased risk of COVID-19 spread in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the CDC appealed a federal judge’s order in a lawsuit against the agency brought by Gov. Ron DeSantis that will turn its regulations for how cruise companies can operate in Florida during the pandemic into mere recommendations. The regulations require cruise ships to have COVID-19 testing capabilities aboard, perform test cruises if less than 95% of crew and passengers are vaccinated, and secure evacuation agreements with local hospitals in the U.S. cities they visit, among other things.

The June 18 order from U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida said the CDC has not provided enough clear justification for its “conditional sail order” — a framework of regulations dictating how cruises can restart in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic — and is causing Florida to miss out on tax dollars generated by the cruise industry. The order was a win for Gov. DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody who brought the case in April.

Merryday’s order turns the regulations into recommendations, similar to those in place for the airline, hotel and entertainment industries, on July 18. Instead of proposing a narrower set of regulations before then, the CDC appealed Tuesday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and asked Merryday to reverse his order while the appeal is heard.

The CDC argues its cruise regulations fall under its broad authority to protect public health and are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In its request Tuesday, the CDC said cruise ships have a higher risk of COVID-19 spread than other venues like hotels and airplanes.

“This Court’s order creates a substantial risk that cruise ships will exacerbate the introduction and spread of the virus in the United States,” the agency said.

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“Removing traditional public protections, as implemented through the [conditional sail order]…just as cruising is beginning to restart, places the public at risk, undermines public confidence in the ability of cruise ship operators to mitigate COVID-19, and jeopardizes cruise industry plans for safe restart,” wrote Aimee Treffiletti, head of the CDC’s Martitime Unit in a declaration accompanying the agency’s request.

No cruise companies joined Gov. DeSantis in the lawsuit against the CDC. The cruise industry lobbying group Cruise Lines International Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, cruise companies have already begun operating from Florida ports under the CDC’s regulations. An ocean cruise ship carrying paying passengers — Celebrity Edge — left a U.S. port for the first time in 15 months on June 26 from Port Everglades. Ships that don’t meet the CDC’s threshold that 95% of crew and passengers be vaccinated have successfully completed two-day test cruises from Florida ports with volunteer passengers and are now carrying paying passengers.

Cruise companies voluntarily stopped cruises in March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths on several ships. The CDC put a “no-sail order” in place, banning cruises in U.S. waters, until the agency replaced it with its conditional sail order in October 2020. Since April, the CDC said it has approved 12 ships to begin revenue cruises and 13 ships for test cruises.

Even with the CDC regulations in place, COVID-19 cases on cruise ships persist, but vaccines are proving effective at preventing the deadly ship outbreaks seen last year. Two children under 16 years old tested positive for COVID-19 on a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship in the Caribbean last month. The company isolated the children and evacuated them back to the U.S. Eight crew members on the company’s Odyssey of the Seas ship tested positive for COVID-19 last month, forcing the company to postpone that ship’s test cruise.

Royal Caribbean International is requiring passengers 16 years old and older on cruises departing from U.S. and Caribbean ports to be fully vaccinated, except for cruises from Florida where the company will allow unvaccinated passengers to board, but with restrictions and special COVID-19 insurance. A recently passed Florida law prevents companies operating in the state from requiring patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

Royal Caribbean International’s sister company, Celebrity Cruises, created a workaround to comply with the law and still achieve the threshold of 95% of passengers vaccinated. The company calls passengers in the weeks leading up to the cruise to confirm their vaccination status and remind them to bring proof of vaccination to the terminal. Those who don’t volunteer their proof of vaccination at the terminal are still allowed to board but have to meet other requirements and restrictions, including multiple COVID-19 tests at their own expense.

During recent inspections of cruises, Treffiletti, the CDC’s Maritime Unit lead, said in Tuesday’s court filing that the agency has worked with cruise companies to correct a long list of problems caught by CDC inspectors, including failure to keep passengers with positive test results distanced from passengers cleared for embarkation during boarding and incorrect use of personal protective equipment. She said the CDC is aware of companies mislabeling positive COVID-19 test results as negative and repeatedly testing to negate reporting a positive test result.

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