Norwegian cruise company sues Florida over ban on Covid vaccine passports

A Norwegian cruise ship company has filed a federal lawsuit against the Florida surgeon general, over a state law that prohibits companies from asking or requiring customers and employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

According to the complaint filed in the southern district of Florida by Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings, the suit is a “last resort” after the state “indicated it is otherwise preventing NCLH from safely and soundly resuming passenger cruise operations”.

The cruise line intends to ask for documentation confirming guests’ vaccination status before boarding.

In its complaint, it says the state law places it “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 names the surgeon general, Dr Scott Rivkees, as defendant, in his capacity as “the responsible state official”, and asks the court both to grant a preliminary injunction to allow it to resume sailing with protocols in place, and to invalidate the Florida statute.

NCLH cruises are set to resume sailing from Florida ports on 15 August. It suspended all operations across its three brands worldwide in March 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, it called the Florida law “debilitating for the entire cruise community”.

“The swift deployment of vaccines has been the primary vehicle for people to safely get back to their everyday lives while containing the spread of the virus,” a representative said.

NCLH said it had invested in a health and safety program developed with public health experts to make sure it can keep the virus at bay, particularly given the spread of the Delta variant throughout Florida and the US.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed an executive order banning the use of “vaccine passports”, or documentation proving someone has received the vaccine, in April. It went into effect on 3 May.

“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,” DeSantis said.

On Wednesday, an assistant at the Florida health department said media representatives were unavailable for comment. An email to the agency was not immediately answered.

In May, NCLH’s chief executive, Frank Del Rio, said the Florida law could cause the company to move, 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.

Passengers seem to want to be among other people who have had the shots. A May 2021 survey of more than 5,000 readers of Cruisecritic.com found that 80% of likely passengers preferred to resume sailing on ships that require vaccinations, according to Dr Jukka Laitamaki, a clinical professor at the Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University.

Laitamaki mentioned the statistic in a declaration filed with the court in support of NCLH. Of those 80%, he wrote, 89% said they felt more safe sailing on a ship with other vaccinated travelers. Laitamaki also disclosed he was being paid $500 an hour for consulting on the suit.

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