Judge blocks Florida law, allows cruise ships to require COVID vaccination proof

By John Haughey
The Center Square
August 9, 2021

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaigns to prohibit cruise ships from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations and school districts from imposing mask mandates are facing rigorous – and in one case, successful – constitutional challenges.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on Sunday night granted Norwegian Cruise Line a temporarily injunction blocking implementation of Senate Bill 2006, which bans businesses, including cruise ships, from requiring vaccination proof or face $5,000 fines for each violation.

Williams said Florida failed to “provide a valid evidentiary, factual, or legal predicate” for banning vaccination proof, noting Norwegian “has demonstrated that public health will be jeopardized if it is required to suspend its vaccination requirement.”

Unless the state appeals and the ban is reinstated – no word from Tallahassee through mid-morning Monday – Norwegian will require vaccination proof for all passengers and crew when the Miami-based operator, the world’s third-largest, resumes sailings Saturday.

“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 [Sunday’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,” Norwegian President and CEO Frank Del Rio said in a statement.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting school districts from requiring masks also is going to drag the state into court.

A group of 27 parents and their children with disabilities filed a federal lawsuit Friday in the U.S. Southern District of Florida in Miami, claiming the governor’s executive order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and illegally threatens to withhold funding from districts that impose mask mandates.

DeSantis “does not have the authority to threaten school districts with loss of funding if they protect their students with disabilities health and rights to be in an integrated learning environment,” the lawsuit said.

The Florida Board of Education agreed Friday to a proposal championed by DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to allow students facing “COVID-19 harassment” in districts that require masks to be eligible for a Hope Scholarship, a voucher program that pays for private school tuition for bullied students.

Norwegian, the state’s largest cruise operator, filed a lawsuit July 13, challenging the constitutionality of DeSantis’ April executive order and the subsequently adopted SB 2006.

The law infringes on the First Amendment, Norwegian contends. The state maintains it is necessary to prevent discrimination against passengers who don’t get vaccinated.

Williams’ ruling follows July’s decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit in Atlanta that repealed and then reinstated U.S. Middle District of Florida Judge Steven Merryday’s ruling that cruise-line regulations outlined by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s “conditional sale order” cannot be enforced on Florida’s $8.1 billion cruise industry.

Norwegian and other cruise operators maintain their customer base is not going to sea without assurances they are safe from the disease.

Norwegian insists it has a right to voluntarily comply with CDC regulations and, unless it can do so, the suit maintains Norwegian “will not be able to sail as it has assured its passengers (who overwhelmingly support vaccination and documentation of same) it is otherwise poised to do. The result would be a devastating, unrecoverable loss for everyone – not only for (Norwegian) but also for tens of thousands of passengers, employees and stakeholders who all benefit from (Norwegian) resuming safe operations as planned.”