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Norwegian Cruise sues Florida over DeSantis ban on vaccine passports

(Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings plans to start sailing from Florida next month with a mandate: Every single passenger and crew member must show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus. A new state law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says the company can’t do that without facing possible fines of $5,000 per violation. That could add up to millions of dollars in fines each cruise.

After failed attempts to come to an agreement with the state, Norwegian on Tuesday sued Florida’s surgeon general — the state official responsible for enforcing the law — in federal court.

“The upshot places NCLH in an impossible dilemma as it prepares to set sail from Florida,” the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, said. “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.”

Norwegian asks the court to invalidate the prohibition, the company said in a statement, and to grant a preliminary injunction that will let its cruises sail with the vaccine requirement in place.

“We believe Florida’s prohibition is on the wrong side of federal law, public health, science and is not in the best interest of the welfare of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit, therefore, we have reluctantly turned to the courts for relief,” the statement said.

‘Political buffoonery’: Cruise lines head for showdown with DeSantis over vaccine requirement ban

The company added: “It gives us no pleasure to be pursuing this lawsuit, which was our last resort.”

A representative for the state surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw accused the cruise operator of discriminating against children and others who either can’t be vaccinated or choose not to be.

“This Administration will not tolerate such widespread discrimination,” she said. “Therefore, Norwegian faces a $5,000 fine from whom they demand a vaccination status.”

In the complaint, Norwegian argues several reasons the state ban should not apply to the company. One of those reasons involves rules established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to let cruises resume in the United States after halting operations for more than a year. According to the CDC, cruise ships that have at least 95 percent of crew and passengers vaccinated can start sailing more quickly and without strict covid restrictions, such as mask-wearing.

Florida filed its own lawsuit against the CDC earlier this year, arguing that the agency did not have the authority to impose those rules against the industry. A judge agreed that the state would likely be victorious in its suit and said the CDC’s requirements would become mere recommendations as of July 18.

Norwegian threatens to pull cruise ships from Florida over DeSantis vaccine passport ban

Pushaw invoked that case in her response to what she called Norwegian’s “meritless lawsuit.”

“Florida already fought and won its case so that Norwegian and all other cruise lines can invite and serve all Americans on its vessels,” she said. “But apparently Norwegian prefers the shackles of the CDC to the freedom offered by Florida.”

Cruise lines have already started sailing from Florida, with varying vaccine requirements in place. In cases where unvaccinated adults board a cruise, they must pay for their own tests and abide by extra rules and restrictions on board. Some lines say they are sailing with at least 95 percent of vaccinated passengers — and are checking cruise passengers’ vaccine cards. It’s not clear how their protocols differ from Norwegian’s, aside from Norwegian’s requirement that every passenger be vaccinated. Those who are not eligible to be vaccinated — including kids under 12 — are not allowed to sail.

In May, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings chief executive Frank Del Rio threatened to move his ships out of state if the ban threatened the company’s plan to sail with fully vaccinated passengers.

Tuesday’s lawsuit insisted the company wants to find a way to cruise from Florida, but echoed the earlier sentiments.

“If Florida’s ban stands, then the only way NCLH can require vaccine documentation and maximize safety, comfort, and confidence would be by eschewing operations in Florida,” the motion for an injunction says. “That would be a tragedy for all concerned.”

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