Court Allows Norwegian Cruise Line to Use Vaccine Passports in Florida

File image courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line

Published Aug 9, 2021 3:10 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Saturday, a federal judge ruled in favor of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in a case against the State of Florida, issuing an injunction to block Florida's ban on vaccine passports. 

Last month, the company filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in a bid to overturn the state's ban on vaccine passport requirements. In an emergency order issued in April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis forbid businesses in Florida from "requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination . . . to gain acess to, entry upon, or service from the business." The state legislature later codified the order into law, and Florida officials have interpreted the ban to apply to international cruise ship operations homeported in the state.

In July, NCLH asked the court to grant a preliminary injunction to block the state's ban so that it could move ahead with its sailings from Florida seaports. The firm seeks to use vaccine passports to exceed compliance with CDC rules for the resumption of cruising, attain a 100 percent onboard vaccination rate, and meet requirements at ports of call. It has promised that it will not sail from Florida if the law remains in place, and it has threatened to leave the state altogether.

In a hearing Friday, NCLH's attorneys noted that Florida has an active COVID-19 outbreak, and it currently ranks among the top ten states nationwide for cases per capita. "It's scary what is happening in Florida. Florida is a hot spot. All we're doing is trying to protect our staff and passengers," said NCLH attorney Derek Shaffer. 

In a ruling issued Saturday night, Judge Kathleen M. Williams agreed with NCLH and issued a temporary injunction to suspend the state law. In particular, she pointed to the need for NCLH to show compliance with vaccine requirements at other ports of call. 

"Amid myriad, rapidly-changing requirements regarding quarantining and testing, there is one constant that facilitates cruise line customers’ access to advertised ports of call: documentary proof of vaccination will expedite passengers’ entry into virtually every single country and port where plaintiffs intend to sail," she wrote. "On the other hand, without documentary proof of vaccination, protocols vary so markedly - and change so frequently, especially as the Delta Variant becomes more widespread - to make it not only impractical, but also financially, legally, and logistically onerous for cruise lines like NCLH to comply."

Williams noted that Florida's vaccine passport ban would also make it difficult for NCLH to communicate passengers' vaccine status to port state authorities in the event of an emergency, potentially hampering a response. 

In a statement, NCLH welcomed the decision, noting that Florida is the only jurisdiction in the world that has had any issue with the firm's 100-percent vaccination policy. 

"The health and safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit is our number one priority, today, tomorrow and forever," said president and CEO Frank Del Rio. "We want nothing more than to sail from Miami, the cruise capital of the world, and from the other fabulous Florida ports . . . we welcome today’s ruling that allows us to sail with 100 percent fully vaccinated guests and crew."