Ruling could allow Carnival cruises from Florida to resume in December

Shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic since March, cruise ships could return to Florida waters as early as December, according to an order this week by a federal judge in Miami.

The order, which stems from a 2016 oil-dumping case against Carnival Corporation-owned Princess Cruise Lines, temporarily clears the way for Carnival Cruise Lines to move ahead with plans to restart shuttered cruise operations in Miami and Cape Canaveral.

As part a 2017 settlement, Carnival had agreed to notify the government of an array of environmental precautions on each ship no more than 30 days before that ship returned to U.S. waters. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida Patricia Seitz indicated she was resetting that window to 60 days, effectively closing the window on cruise travel for 2020.

But Seitz’s latest order acknowledged the “significant impacts of COVID-19 on the operations and financial resources” of Carnival’s lines. As such, she revised her order to allow any impacted ship entering U.S. waters by Dec. 31 to deliver its environmental notices up to seven days later.

While Carnival has been bullish on getting back in the water, especially in Florida, it’s not guaranteed that their December target date will hold. The Centers for Disease Control’s current no-sail order is set to expire Oct. 31, and it could be extended.

“While we are not making any presumptions, once cruising is allowed, we will center our initial start-up from the homeports of Miami and Port Canaveral,” Carnival president Christine Duffy said in a statement earlier this month.

The ruling boosted optimism among industry watchers that the cruise business could rebound sooner rather than later, as shares of Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian all rose Thursday.

The new ruling is not expected to have an immediate impact on cruise business at Port Tampa Bay, where Carnival is the No. 1 client.

During budget planning sessions in August, Port Tampa Bay officials forecast a scenario where Carnival would begin limited cruises from Tampa in April, expanding its business next summer. Its budget is planning for 40 cruises — all of them Carnival — in the 2021 fiscal year.

Despite Carnival still selling some Tampa cruises departing as early as January, the port has shown no signs of changing its spring-summer timetable. Port spokeswoman Lea Bueno directed questions about returning cruises to the companies themselves.

“The cruise lines make those decisions and then inform the port,” she said.

Other cruise lines embarking from Port Tampa Bay have been more cautious about resuming U.S. operations.

Holland America has suspended its U.S. cruises through Dec. 15. In late September, Royal Caribbean extended its “Cruise with Confidence” program, allowing customers who book by Nov. 30 to cancel up to 48 hours before any trip, and receive full credit for another Royal Caribbean or Celebrity cruise before spring 2022.

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