(3:30 p.m. EDT) -- Cruise passengers with plans to embark from Florida might be feeling concerned after a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit decision that at least temporarily sides with Florida in its argument that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in enforcing health and safety protocols in the state.
The reality is that it's too soon to panic.
The decision basically makes all the protocols in the CDC's Conditional Sailing Order simply suggestions for sailings out of Florida -- though the agency was also given time to respond to the court by September 1 with additional arguments. The court did not explain its decision.
After the ruling late Friday, the CDC wrote to cruise lines asking them to notify the agency's Marine Unit by 5 p.m. July 26, 2021, whether their ships operating out of Florida would "follow all of the CSO's provisions on a voluntary basis."
The letter came with strong incentives to do just that. The CDC said ships would continue to be required to report any cases of COVID-19 onboard. Ships that choose not to follow the agency's specific rules for containing transmission or spread of the virus as outlined in the CSO could be "detained" pending completion of sanitation measures, the agency said.
The CDC also said it would enforce an indoor mask mandate, similar to what's required on airplanes and other modes of transportation on any ship where the agency can't confirm that its health and safety protocols were being followed. This could directly impact the cruise experience for both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests sailing from Florida.
The CDC publishes a color-coded list of outbreaks on ships and said any ships not following the CSO's provisions on a voluntary basis would be listed as gray -- thereby alerting the public that the CDC can't confirm the ship's protocols align with CDC standards for the prevention of COVID-19.
The state of Florida responded to the CDC's salvo immediately, going to the U.S. District Court in Tampa -- where the state's argument was first filed -- and asking a judge to rule "as an emergency" that the CDC's letter was in contempt of court.
The CDC continues to push back against the state of Florida. "Florida's assertion that the CDC's letter to cruise ship operators warrants contempt sanctions is mystifying," the CDC replied in a filing Monday. The agency said the injunction against enforcement of its CSO in Florida did not mean it couldn't ask cruise operators to voluntarily follow the outlined protocols -- as well as other "unchallenged regulations."
On Friday night, Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean, posted on Facebook, "And so it continues! We will continue to voluntarily follow all CDC guidelines and recommendations." He also included a Reuters article on the appeals court decision.
This past weekend, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line both said they would voluntarily adhere to the rules and recommendations the CDC outlines in its CSO. These include a requirement that ships carrying fewer than 95 percent vaccinated passengers must undergo test cruises in order to have health and safety protocols assessed and verified before embarking on actual revenue sailings.
In Athens, as Norwegian Cruise Line marked its return to revenue cruises with the Norwegian Jade sailing Sunday from Piraeus, Harry Sommer, president and CEO of the line, said he had written immediately back to the CDC that they line would voluntarily comply with the CDC protocols.
The CDC said in a statement to Cruise Critic late on July 26 that all Florida-based ships had agreed to follow the agency’s health and safety measures on a voluntary basis in the state. “CDC will continue to operate the CSO as a voluntary program for these ships,” the agency said. “CDC remains committed to working with the cruise industry and seaport partners to ensure that the resumption of cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers, and port personnel, particularly with emerging COVID-19 variants of concern.”
Carnival Corporation, parent company of brands including Carnival Cruise Line, which has resumed Florida sailings, said in a statement, “The recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling is part of a broader legal challenge that may not be settled for some time. While these matters continue to be litigated, we intend to follow protocols consistent with CSO guidelines.”
This is just one of several battles being fought regarding cruises from florida. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, is separately suing the state of Florida in federal court, hoping to overturn the state's new law that bars businesses from requiring customers show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. The company's policy is that all ships will sail only with fully vaccinated guests through October.
Cruise Critic will update this article as more information becomes available.