Norwegian Cruise Line Sues Florida Surgeon General Over ‘Vaccine-Passport’ Ban

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Norwegian Cruise Line

NCLH -4.36%

Holdings Ltd. has sued Florida’s surgeon general, challenging the state’s barring of businesses from requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination and intensifying the standoff between the company and Florida.

The cruise operator is sticking with its policy to require full vaccinations for all crew and passengers, including children, for initial sailings through Oct. 31 after more than a yearlong hiatus and billions of dollars in losses. That policy, if maintained in Florida, would result in the company being fined up to $5,000 for each passenger affected, it said.

The Miami-based company filed the lawsuit Tuesday against

Scott Rivkees,

the state surgeon general, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Norwegian asked the court to block and declare unlawful the enforcement of the ban on requiring proof of vaccination. Norwegian only sued Dr. Rivkees because he is the state official who has authority to enforce the ban, according to the company’s complaint.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees is the state official who has authority to enforce the ban on requiring proof of vaccination.



Photo:

Matias J. Ocner/Zuma Press

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

in May said, “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.”

The Florida Department of Health didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The company argued that restricting the flow of information—in this case, vaccine documentation—affects freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

It also said Florida’s ban disrupts the flow of interstate and international commerce, in violation of a clause in the U.S. Constitution that gives Congress the sole authority to regulate interstate commerce. Those two arguments could position Norwegian well in its case, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.

“They have a reasonably strong chance to succeed,” Prof. Gostin said.

Norwegian is set to offer cruises to the Caribbean starting Aug. 15 from Florida, a cruise hub that in 2019 accounted for about 60% of cruise embarkations from the U.S., according to the industry group Cruise Lines International Association. The company also plans to resume Alaska sailings beginning Aug. 7, marking its first U.S. restart. Alaska doesn’t have restrictions on requiring vaccination proof like Florida does.

Florida’s ban, made into law in May, is in place as cruise operators have been working to satisfy guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Committing to a 95% vaccination rate for crew and passengers is one way for cruise operators to get the green light from the agency, the CDC said. In its complaint, Norwegian said the potential spread of the highly contagious Delta variant is another driver of its decision to require full Covid-19 vaccinations.

A federal judge sided with Florida last month in the state’s lawsuit over the federal government’s cruise-industry restrictions. The judge granted the state’s request for a preliminary injunction barring the CDC from enforcing a conditional-sailing order the agency put in place in October 2020. The CDC asked the district court to stay the preliminary injunction, a motion the court later denied. The agency also asked an appeals court to put the ruling on hold.

Norwegian Chief Executive

Frank Del Rio,

in his declaration filed in court, said the company won’t be able to sail in Florida as planned if it must comply with the proof-of-vaccine ban. The cancellation of itineraries for the Norwegian Gem ship, which will depart from Miami, could result in about $4 million in lost revenue per seven-day cruise, Mr. Del Rio said.

“If we do not abandon our Florida operations entirely, then NCLH will have to revise its operations in ways that are costlier, less safe, less appealing for our passenger base, less likely to meet our commitments to [the] CDC, and are beneath our brand and the quality of experience passengers have come to expect from NCLH,” Mr. Del Rio said of the scenario in which the company must comply with the Florida law.

Royal Caribbean Group,

Norwegian’s competitor, has shifted from requiring to recommending vaccinations to abide by the Florida law. But unvaccinated people would be subject to additional costs and restrictions, it said. One of its lines is requiring unvaccinated guests 12 and older departing from Florida to buy travel insurance. Carnival Cruise Line is also requiring travel insurance for unvaccinated guests on cruises leaving from Florida starting July 31.

Startups, governments and nonprofits are racing to create so-called ‘vaccine passports,’ or digital health passes aimed at helping people travel and safely move around in public. WSJ explains what it would take to get a global digital health pass system off the ground. Illustration: Zoë Soriano

Write to Dave Sebastian at dave.sebastian@wsj.com

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