Norwegian cruises challenges Florida passenger vaccine law

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FILE – In this May 4, 2020 file photo, Norwegian cruise ships are docked at Portsmouth Marine Terminal in Portsmouth, Va. Norwegian Cruise Line asked a federal judge Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, to block a Florida law prohibiting cruise companies from demanding that passengers show written proof of coronavirus vaccination before they board a ship. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP, File)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Norwegian Cruise Line asked a federal judge Friday to block a Florida law prohibiting cruise companies from demanding that passengers show written proof of coronavirus vaccination before they board a ship.

Norwegian contends the “vaccine passport” ban, signed into law in May by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, jeopardizes the health and safety of passengers and crew and is an unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, among other things.

Norwegian attorney Derek Shaffer told U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams during a remote hearing the vaccination requirement for its passengers is especially needed as Florida has recently experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“It’s scary what is happening in Florida. Florida is a hotspot,” Shaffer said. “All we’re doing is trying to protect our staff and passengers.”

The lawsuit names state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, who leads the Florida Department of Health. The state’s attorney, Pete Patterson, said the law’s aim is to prevent discrimination against passengers who don’t get vaccinated.

“You can’t discriminate against customers on the basis of their refusal to give you information,” Patterson said. “If it weren’t for this law, there would be a vaccine passport required to get on a cruise ship.”

Williams did not immediately rule Friday on Norwegian’s request for a temporary injunction halting the law’s enforcement. Violations of the law could trigger a penalty of $5,000 per passenger, which Shaffer said would cause the company “irreparable harm.”

“This law should be fatal on arrival,” Shaffer said, adding that the Legislature and governor sought mainly to “score political points” in the heated national debate over getting the coronavirus vaccine.

The hearing comes as the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the validity of cruise line rules adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The appeals court recently upheld a Tampa judge’s decision, hailed by DeSantis, making those CDC rules on how to resume cruise sailing into guidelines rather than requirements.

Miami-based Norwegian operates 28 cruise ships around the world but only those boarding in Florida ports are affected by the state vaccine passport law. Once the ships leave Florida waters, the law no longer applies. Many cruise destinations, however, have their own vaccination requirements for passengers to go ashore.

Norwegian is planning an Aug. 15 cruise from Florida under its vaccination proof policy. If the law banning that policy remains in effect, the company said that ship won’t sail — and Norwegian has also threatened to abandon Florida entirely over this issue.

“Simply stated, (Norwegian) cannot sail as planned unless and until Florida’s ban gives way,” the company said in court documents. “There is no adequate substitute for documentary proof when it comes to maximizing onboard safety.”

Other cruise lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have already begun voyages from Florida with a variety of policies regarding COVID-19 vaccination.

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