Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings can require passengers show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, despite a Florida law barring companies from doing just that, a federal judge in Miami ruled Sunday.
The third-largest cruise company in the world sued Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees in July, arguing the state law puts passengers and crew at risk and violates federal law and the company’s constitutional rights. On Sunday, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida Kathleen Mary Williams blocked Florida from enforcing the law against Norwegian when the company restarts cruises from Florida this month.
The law that took effect in July allows the state to fine businesses $5,000 every time they require that a patron provide documentation of COVID-19 vaccination. Cruise companies already operating from Florida ports are getting around the law by requesting vaccine documents from passengers and hitting unvaccinated passengers with steep fees for multiple tests and on-board restrictions.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is parent to cruise brands Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas. The company plans to restart cruises in the U.S. after a 17-month hiatus by welcoming only fully vaccinated passengers aboard its Norwegian Gem ship at PortMiami on Aug. 15. The company repeatedly threatened to pull its ships from Florida if it was not allowed to require proof of vaccination from passengers.
The judge said that without an injunction, Norwegian would suffer irreparable harm to its reputation in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak and economic loss.
Norwegian praised the judge’s ruling.
“We want nothing more than to sail from Miami, the Cruise Capital of the World, and from the other fabulous Florida ports and we welcome today’s ruling that allows us to sail with 100% fully vaccinated guests and crew which we believe is the safest and most prudent way to resume cruise operations amid this global pandemic,” said Frank Del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, in a statement.
Sunday’s decision is the latest in the ongoing court battle between the cruise industry and Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis sued the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April and successfully blocked the agency from enforcing its cruise safety rules in Florida. All cruise companies operating in Florida are still voluntarily following the CDC’s regulations.
Spokespeople for DeSantis, who has enthusiastically championed the law, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge’s decision.
At a hearing last week, lawyers for Florida argued that the state law is needed to prevent discrimination against unvaccinated people and to protect passengers’ privacy.
In her order Sunday, Williams said Florida’s law does not effectively prevent discrimination or protect privacy.
The law allows companies to require employees provide vaccination proof and that patrons verify their vaccination status verbally. It also allows companies to make unvaccinated passengers pay extra fees, segregate from vaccinated passengers and show their vaccination status in the form of a wristband or other identifier.
“Defendant has presented no evidence to demonstrate that his asserted interests are in response to real problems that Florida residents are actually facing,” Williams wrote in her order. “There is no evidentiary support to show that residents have experienced intrusions on their medical privacy or discrimination because some businesses, including cruise lines, have required COVID-19 vaccination documentation.”
Williams said Florida’s law unlawfully infringes on Norwegian’s right of free speech by prohibiting it from requiring passengers show COVID-19 vaccination documentation, but allowing it to demand other kinds of medical documentation in exchange for services. She said the law will unlawfully burden interstate commerce because Norwegian plans to visit Caribbean countries and territories that require all passengers be vaccinated, including the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Williams suggested Florida could have made an exemption to the law for cruise companies or interstate commerce, the way it did for healthcare businesses.
Even ships that are operating with all crew and most passengers who have been vaccinated are experiencing COVID-19 infections. Of the 63 ocean cruise ships currently operating in U.S. waters or planning to soon, 27 have reported COVID-19 cases on board in the last seven days, according to the CDC.