Video source: YouTube, CNBC Television
By Tom Hals
Norwegian Cruise Line heads to federal court on Friday in a battle that pits the company's plan for returning to the seas against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's vow to oppose COVID-19 "vaccine passports."
The court battle comes as big business and some government entities are responding to the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus with vaccination requirements, prompting legal challenges from vaccine skeptics and civil libertarians.
Norwegian plans to make its first post-pandemic departure from Miami, the main port for Caribbean cruises, on Aug. 15. As part of its plan to guard against a COVID-19 outbreak, it will require passengers to prove they have been vaccinated.
Banning anyone who refuses to prove their vaccine status will run afoul of Florida's law, which forbids businesses, government entities and schools from requiring proof of COVID-19 immunity in return for a service. The law has certain exceptions, such as for healthcare.
The ban on "vaccine passports" took effect on July 1 and Norwegian faces a fine of up to $5,000 for each violation.
The law essentially codified an executive order signed in April by DeSantis, who is staunchly against COVID-19 restrictions, even as the Republican governor's state has become a hotbed of infections and hospitalizations have hit record levels.
Norwegian has said in court papers that enforcing the law would be "devastating" to its passengers, employees and suppliers by forcing the cancellation of the cruise, and condemned the law as doing nothing for passenger safety.
"What this ban really does is score political points," it said in court papers.
Norwegian is ramping up its return to cruises, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shut down in March 2020 with its "No Sail" order.
On Saturday, Norwegian will make its first post-pandemic sailing from a U.S. port with an Alaska cruise from Seattle.
In order to sail, Norwegian has attested to the CDC it would confirm that at least 95% of passengers have been vaccinated.
The company has urged U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams in Miami to block the Florida law, saying it is pre-empted by the CDC's authority.
Norwegian said in court papers that the Florida law violates the company's First Amendment rights by restricting the flow of information with customers and interferes with interstate commerce.
The state has responded that Norwegian is free to ask for proof of vaccination and its customers are free to provide it, but the cruise line cannot deny entry to the ship for anyone who declines to provide documentation.
It argued that Norwegian could have opted, as rival cruise operators did, to seek CDC approval through a process of running simulated voyages and applying other COVID-19 protocols such as masking indoors.
Norwegian's arguments face an added wrinkle. The CDC cruise restrictions were temporarily blocked in Florida late last month after the state sued.
Norwegian argued the preliminary injunction against the CDC requirements is not final and the cruise line still must comply outside Florida.
DeSantis has been dismissive of the plight of Norwegian, which he called "one of the smaller" cruise lines and has said the company's "niche" could be filled by other operators if it left Florida.
Royal Caribbean said on Wednesday it will be requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated, although the policy will not apply to cruises departing from Florida.
Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis.