Norwegian Cruise Line sues Florida over vaccine passport ban

Jul 13, 2021

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One of the world’s biggest cruise companies is suing Florida over the state’s so-called vaccine passport ban.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court against Florida’s surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, to stop him from enforcing the ban, which was enacted as a state law earlier this year. The law says businesses in Florida can’t require customers to show proof of a vaccine.

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Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, which plans to restart cruises out of Florida on Aug. 15 with a requirement that all passengers show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The company suggested it would have to cancel the sailings if the law was enforced.

“[A]fter months of Herculean efforts, [Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings] is at last set to resume sailing Aug. 15, 2021, in a way that will be safe, sound and consistent with governing law, particularly the Conditional Sailing Order administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” the company noted in its complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. “Yet one anomalous, misguided intrusion threatens to spoil [the company’s] careful planning and force it to cancel or hobble upcoming cruises, thereby imperiling and impairing passengers’ experiences and inflicting irreparable harm of vast dimensions.”

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings executives have maintained for months that the only way to safely restart cruising this summer with COVID-19 still prevalent was for ships to sail only with passengers and crew who are vaccinated against the disease.

Norwegian Cruise Line plans to restart cruises out of Florida on Aug. 15. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

The company also has noted that its plans for requiring passengers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is in keeping with recommendations issued both by the CDC and its own internal “healthy sail panel” of medical experts.

“In light of the recommendations from the healthy sail panel and other leading industry and public health advice, [the company] has concluded that the most effective way to ensure the health and safety of passengers and crew is to require full vaccination on cruises by everyone on board,” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio said in a declaration that accompanied the company’s complaint. “The fact that 34 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 and 600,000 have died tells me that the trifecta of mask-wearing, social distancing and washing hands [was] not sufficient to curb the transmission and effects of COVID-19.”

Del Rio added that surveys are showing that the “vast majority” of the company’s customers want an everyone-must-be-vaccinated rule for cruises.

“Thankfully, demand for NCLH cruises has returned with passengers ready to cruise even as concerns with COVID-19 persist,” Del Rio said. “I attribute the demand for NCLH cruises in large part to our plan for 100% vaccination.”

Del Rio added that only by verifying the vaccination status of cruise passengers could the company best guard against the introduction and spread of COVID-19 on its ships.

“I consider it irresponsible, counterproductive and damaging to our brand to deviate from that approach in order to make home ports in Florida viable,” Del Rio said.

In the complaint, the company suggested it was caught between what was the right thing to do from a health and safety point of view and federal guidelines, and the Florida law.

The Florida law “places NCLH in an impossible dilemma as it prepares to set sail from Florida: NCLH will find itself either on the wrong side of health and safety and the operative federal legal framework, or else on the wrong side of Florida law,” the company said in the complaint. “Because neither prospect is acceptable, NCLH must respectfully turn to this court seeking essential relief. Only with the benefit of prompt judicial relief suspending Florida’s prohibition can NCLH’s passenger cruises proceed as currently planned starting Aug. 15.”

Among its central arguments in its lawsuit, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is suggesting that the Florida ban is preempted by federal law and also violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Related: The ultimate guide to Norwegian Cruise Line

The company also argued that the Florida ban violates both the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution and due process rules. The company said that, absent an injunction from the court to block enforcement of the ban, it would suffer irreparable harm.

The Florida vaccine passport ban was pushed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who initially issued it as an executive order.

In a statement sent to TPG, the press secretary for the governor, Christina Pushaw, called Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ lawsuit meritless.

“Norwegian Cruise Line 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,” the statement said. “Every other industry in Florida has safely reopened while still respecting the right of every Floridian to make their own medical choice when it comes to vaccinations.”

The statement noted that around 40% of Florida’s residents had not been vaccinated for COVID-19 and thus would be excluded from Norwegian ships if the line sailed with a vaccine requirement.

“This administration will not tolerate such widespread discrimination,” the statement said.

The statement threatened Norwegian with fines of $5,000 for every passenger that the company requires to show proof of vaccination status when it resumes sailings from Florida.

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Featured image an artist’s drawing of Norwegian Prima, which is scheduled to debut in August 2022 courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

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