Cruise Line sues Florida over ‘misguided’ ban on vaccine passports

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Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has filed a lawsuit against Florida’s surgeon general in a bid to end a state law that prohibits businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. 

In a complaint filed on Tuesday, Norwegian described the lawsuit as a “last resort” to ensure it can resume cruising “safely and soundly,” according to CNN. It also described the Florida state law banning so-called “vaccine passports” as an “anomalous, misguided intrusion.”

In April, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning the use of COVID-19 passports in Florida, blocking any business or government entity from requiring documentation showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination, and any government entity from issuing the passports. Senate Bill 2006 was signed into law on May 3, making the order official.

“In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,” said DeSantis in a press release in May.

The law prevents companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line from checking the vaccination status of passengers boarding at Florida ports which, as USA Today reports, contradicts rules set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC has said cruise ships that have at least 95 per cent of its crew and passengers vaccinated against COVID-19 can set sail more quickly and without strict COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask-wearing. 

In its lawsuit Norwegian says that Florida’s law places the company in an “impossible dilemma” — to be on the “wrong side of Florida state law” or “the wrong side of health and safety.” The company had previously announced it would require all passengers and crew on its ships to be 100 per cent vaccinated at least two weeks before boarding.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, asks the court to suspend Florida’s prohibition on proof of vaccination documents and to grant Norwegian a preliminary injunction allowing its cruises to set sail with its vaccine requirements in place, according to the Washington Post. 

It also names the state’s Surgeon General, Dr. Scott Rivkees, as the “responsible state official” for enforcing the law. 

The ‘wrong side’ of public health

In an email to USA Today, the press secretary for DeSantis’ office called the lawsuit “meritless,” and said the company will face a $5,000 fine each time it asks to check a customer’s COVID-19 vaccination status. 

“Norwegian Cruise Line (Holdings) has made the disappointing and unlawful choice to join the CDC in discriminating against children and other individuals who cannot be vaccinated or who have opted not to be vaccinated for reasons of health, religion, or conscience,” press secretary Christina Pushaw told the outlet. “This Administration will not tolerate such widespread discrimination.”

The state’s Department of Health has not responded to requests for comment from USA Today or CNN. 

In a statement to CNBC, Norwegian Cruise Line said that its policy of requiring 100 per cent vaccination of guests and crew has been in place, without issue, at every port around the world — except for Florida. 

“We believe Florida’s prohibition is on the wrong side of federal law, public health, science and is not in the best interest of the welfare of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit, therefore, we have reluctantly turned to the courts for relief,” it said. 

The lawsuit argues that the vaccine passport ban violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which protects freedom of speech — by blocking communications between businesses and their customers, according to USA Today. It also states that the law inexplicably” prevents the company from “protecting the health and safety of its employees and customers” from a “deadly pandemic.” 

In May, the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Frank Del Rio, warned that Florida’s law could cause the company to move its ships elsewhere, according to CNN

“At the end of the day, cruise ships have motors, propellers and rudders, and God forbid we can’t operate in the state of Florida for whatever reason, then there are other states that we do operate from, and we can operate from the Caribbean for a ship that otherwise would have gone to Florida,” he said during a quarterly earnings call.

Norwegian Cruise Line is asking the court to act before Aug. 15, when its first sailing from the state is scheduled. 

The company’s lawsuit also comes after multiple cruise lines have reported that passengers or crew members have tested positive for COVID-19 while on board. 

Just last month, Royal Carribean International postponed the inaugural sailing of its newest cruise ship after eight crew members tested positive for the virus. That month, two U.S. passengers on Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium Ship, which was billed as carrying “fully vaccinated crew and guests,” also tested positive for COVID-19.

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