(Reuters) — Norwegian Cruise Line argued to a federal judge on Friday that Florida had banned “vaccine passports” to score political points and said the company should be allowed to require proof of COVID-19 shots from passengers when it sails from the state this month.
The cruise line is scheduled for its first post-pandemic cruise from Miami on Aug. 15 and has committed to health authorities that at least 95% of travelers will be vaccinated.
Those plans, however, collided with the Florida ban that was touted by Governor Ron DeSantis, a leading national figure against what he says has been government overreach in fighting the pandemic.
Florida’s law forbids businesses, government entities and schools from requiring proof of COVID-19 immunity in return for a service. However, the law has certain exceptions, such as for healthcare.
A lawyer for Norwegian told U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams that lawmakers never intended to prevent discrimination or protect privacy.
“They want to score political points for one side in a raging debate over whether people should be vaccinated,” Derek Shaffer said.
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.
The judge pressed a lawyer for the state to explain the problem facing Florida consumers that lawmakers were trying to fix. “We don’t want them to carry vaccine documentation to access the economic marketplace,” said Pete Patterson, the state’s lawyer.
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Williams, who was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, also questioned why lawmakers didn’t ban companies from mandating shots for their workers.”
“Don’t you think it’s odd the statute doesn’t worry about discrimination of the state’s employees who are here in Florida but is focused on patrons of a business, who, in this case, are sailing away to other ports of call?” she said.
Norwegian could be fined up to $5,000 for each passenger denied boarding because they did not provide proof of immunity.
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 with hospitalizations at record levels.
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 passengers have been vaccinated.
“Our policy of 100% vaccinations, coupled with preboarding testing of guests and routine testing of crew, is in place without issue in the nearly 500 ports we sail to and from around the world, except Florida ports,” said the company’s CEO Frank Del Rio said on an earnings call on Friday.
The company said on Friday it sees pent-up demand for 2022 cruises.
Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware Additional reporting by Praveen Paramasivam in Bengaluru Editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Holmes
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