Norwegian Cruise Line Asks Judge to Block Florida Passenger Vaccine Law so Ship Can Sail

Norwegian Cruise Line called the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Florida "scary" and asked for a federal judge to block a law that prevents cruise companies from demanding proof of vaccination from passengers before boarding.

"It's scary what is happening in Florida. Florida is a hotspot," Norwegian's attorney, Derek Shaffer, told a judge. "All we're doing is trying to protect our staff and passengers."

Shaffer cited the rising spread of the virus in Florida as cause for cruise companies to require proof of vaccination during a remote hearing with U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, asking for the law to be overturned.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Norwegian Cruise Ship
Norwegian Cruise Line is contesting a Florida law that bans cruise lines from requiring proof of vaccination from passengers before boarding. A docked Norwegian Gem cruise ship is seen here at the Port of Miami in Miami Beach, Florida, on April 14, 2021. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Norwegian contends the "vaccine passport" ban, signed into law in May by Republican Governor 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.

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, here 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.

Ron DeSantis
Norwegian Cruise Line is contesting a vaccine passport ban signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in May. Above, DeSantis speaks during a press conference on August 05, 2021, in Hialeah, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images