In a situation that has hung over the Florida cruise industry for months as ships restart, a federal judge in Florida granted Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings the ability to require proof of vaccination for passengers sailing from the state.
“We want nothing more than to sail from Miami, the Cruise Capital of the World, and from the other fabulous Florida ports, and we welcome today’s ruling that allows us to sail with 100% fully vaccinated guests and crew which we believe is the safest and most prudent way to resume cruise operations amid this global pandemic,” said Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. said in a statement.
While cruises have returned to sailing from several ports around the United States — and the world — trips from Florida have looked different than those sailing from other ports. That’s because the state enacted a law saying businesses could not require customers to show proof of a shot. If they do, then the business can face heavy fines.
Other cruise lines have returned to sailing from the state with a workaround to incentivize sailing with the vaccine. This included high testing fees for unvaccinated passengers and travel insurance requirements. Norwegian, however, wants to sail with 100% of passengers and crew vaccinated. Under the current law, the company and its cruise lines can’t do that.
The Fight to Require Proof of Vaccine
Instead of adjusting Florida policies like other lines have done, the company has pushed back against the law. Months ago CEO Frank Del Rio brought up the possibility of moving ships out of Florida.
Last month, the company instead filed suit against Florida’s Surgeon General seeking relief. On Friday, there was a hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams as the company sought an injunction to be able to sail starting August 15 aboard Norwegian Gem from Miami.
According to the ruling, if Norwegian can’t require proof of the shot, then “it would be forced to either cancel all voyages leaving from the state or allow unvaccinated passengers to sail, and both options would cause significant financial and reputational harms.”
And while the state argues that requiring vaccination would be discriminatory against unvaccinated individuals, the ruling noted that there was no supporting evidence of this. In fact, it was noted that a business can enact “restrictions, requirements, and expenses” on unvaccinated passengers under the law, just as other cruise lines are already doing with testing fees and travel insurance requirements.
The court also found that with many foreign ports requiring vaccines for passengers to enter — including the U.S. Virgin Islands — the Florida law puts a burden on companies to comply with regularly changing rules.
In total, the judge decided that as of now, an injunction against the Florida “vaccine passport” law is granted, allowing Norwegian to sail with requiring proof of vaccination.
Notably, the company has sailed from other ports with the same “100%” policy in place. Most recently, Norwegian Cruise Line made its U.S. debut, sailing with Norwegian Encore from Seattle to Alaska on August 7 with the 100% vaccine rule in order.
Unlike some other lines, Norwegian’s policy means kids under 12 who aren’t eligible for the shot can’t sail with the company at this time. In addition to the vaccine rule, guests must also take a COVID test prior to getting on the ship, and guest capacity is limited.
As of now, Norwegian Cruise Line plans to not have masks or social distancing required on its ships given the vaccine requirement. There are also no restrictions for shore excursions.
Could Changes to the Ruling Come?
One thing to keep in mind is that the legal process can continue to play out and decisions may change. For instance, in a suit filed by Florida against the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), a judge sided with Florida. As a result, the CSO — which outlines the rules and protocols that cruise ships must follow to sail — became a list of recommendations instead of requirements.
Weeks later, an appeals court overturned that decision, keeping the rules in place. Then just days after that they reversed their decision again, turning the CSO back into recommendations. For now, however, cruise lines have made no signal they plan to abandon the CDC’s order despite them no longer being required.
This all comes as the Delta variant of the virus continues to rage in the United States. Daily cases have soared from roughly 12,000 a day just over a month ago to more than 125,000 per day. The latest data from the CDC shows 27 of the 65 ships tracked by the CDC as having possible cases in the past week. However, the total number of cases is not available.