Judge rules Florida can't ban Norwegian Cruise Line 'vaccine passport'

A judge ruled on Sunday that Norwegian Cruise Line is permitted to ask customers to show proof of vaccination before boarding a ship, dealing a blow to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisArizona attorney general asks for restraining order to block federal vaccine mandate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Manchin, Sanders in budget feud; Biden still upbeat Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters MORE’s (R) law that prevented "vaccine passports" from being utilized in the state.

The nearly 60-page preliminary ruling from U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams in the Southern District of Florida said that the state law barring the use of vaccine passports is likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment and jeopardizes public health.

The judge ruled that Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, whom Norwegian filed a lawsuit against over the vaccine passport ban, cannot enforce the law with the cruise line, giving Norwegian the greenlight to carry out its safety measures starting Aug. 15, when the company plans to resume passenger cruises from the Sunshine State.

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DeSantis signed legislation in May that banned vaccine passports in the state.

Norwegian praised the ruling in a statement on Sunday, writing that allowing vaccinated guests on board is the “safest vacation experience” to resume sailing.

“The public health environment continues to evolve around the globe and our robust science-backed health and safety protocols, with vaccines at its cornerstone, allow us to provide what we believe is the safest vacation experience for people who long to get back to their everyday lives and explore the world once again,” Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said in a statement.

Daniel Farkas, executive vice president and general counsel for Norwegian, said the lawsuit was filed “in the best interest of the welfare of our guests, crew and communities we visit in an effort to do our part as responsible corporate citizens to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, further spread of COVID-19 as we gradually relaunch our vessels.”

DeSantis’ office said it disagreed with the judge’s legal reasoning, contending that a ban on vaccine passports does not violate speech rights. The office said it will appeal the decision to the Eleventh Circuit of Appeals.

“A prohibition on vaccine passports does not even implicate, let alone violate, anyone’s speech rights, and it furthers the substantial, local interest of preventing discrimination among customers based on private health information,” DeSantis’ office said in a statement to The Hill.

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The Hill reached out to Rivkees for comment.

Norwegian sued Rivkees last month in an effort to stop the state from enforcing its vaccine passport ban on businesses.

The Miami-headquartered company contended that the state’s legislation against vaccine passports was a violation of the First Amendment because it blocked communication between business and customers.

The cruise line also argued that the law breached the 14th Amendment because it limited the company’s ability to keep its employees and customers safe.

Norwegian earlier this month, during a virtual court hearing, called on a federal judge to block the law banning vaccine passports.

Derek Shaffer, the cruise line’s attorney, pointed to the spike in COVID-19 infections in Florida as reason why the company should be permitted to require proof of vaccination before boarding a ship.

“It’s scary what is happening in Florida. Florida is a hot spot,” Shaffer said, according to The Associated Press. “All we’re doing is trying to protect our staff and passengers.”

He added that the law “should be fatal on arrival,” and said DeSantis and others were supporting the ban to “score political points.”

Updated at 11:21 a.m.