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TALLAHASSEE â- A federal judge sided with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings on Sunday in a constitutional challenge to Florida’s ban on so-called “vaccine passports,” paving the way for the company to demand passengers they present documents proving that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams has released a 59-page ruling that granted a preliminary injunction against a law that was a priority for Governor Ron DeSantis. The law prevented companies from requiring vaccine passports, although Williams’ injunction only applied to Norwegians.
The cruise line issued a press release on Sunday saying the decision would allow it “to operate in the safest possible manner with 100% vaccination of all guests and crew when sailing from ports of Florida â. After being sidelined in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Norwegian plans to resume cruising from Miami on August 15.
“We are delighted that Judge Williams saw the facts, the law and the science as we did and granted the company’s motion for a preliminary injunction allowing us to operate cruises from Florida with guests. and a 100% vaccinated crew, âsaid Daniel S. Farkas, executive vice president. chairman and legal counsel of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said in a prepared statement.
Previous decision: Florida judge rules CDC order blocking cruise ships
Coronavirus Florida: Cruise lines plan to restart, but CDC has not lifted the sailing ban
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Williams, who heard more than two hours of argument on Friday, supported Norwegian’s arguments that state law violates the First Amendment and what’s known as the Dormant Trade Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Miami-based Williams wrote that the law is a “content-based restriction” on speech because it targets documentation but allows companies to request other information from customers on issues such as vaccinations.
“Although companies cannot require customers to verify their immunization status with ‘documentation’, the law does not prohibit companies from verifying immunization status in any other way (for example orally),” Williams wrote. “As a result, under (the law), companies could still ‘discriminate’ against unvaccinated people by adopting a vaccination requirement, which they could enforce by requiring an oral verification of vaccination status before entry or discouraging unvaccinated clients from entering by placing signs that read âclients only vaccinatedâ and âunvaccinated clients are not allowedâ.
In addition, she wrote that the law “does not prohibit companies from subjecting unvaccinated customers — and those who refuse to verify their immunization status and are deemed unvaccinated — to restrictions, requirements and expenses that do not apply to vaccinated clients. “
âIn summary, if combating discrimination was the goal, simply banning the exchange of COVID-19 vaccination documents is an ineffective way to achieve this goal because the law does not directly prohibit the treatment of people. unvaccinated or those who refuse to verify their immunization status. by businesses and employers differently, âshe wrote.
Addressing the dormant trade clause, Williams agreed that Norwegian can show that the law “imposes substantial burdens on interstate commerce that will directly affect their ability to operate” cruise ships.
âAmid a myriad of ever-changing quarantine and testing requirements, there is one constant that makes it easier for cruise line customers to access advertised ports of call: Documentary proof of vaccination will speed up the process. entry of passengers into virtually all the countries and ports where the complainants intend to sail. “wrote Williams, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama.” On the other hand, without documentary evidence of vaccination, protocols vary so dramatically — and change so frequently, from especially as the delta variant becomes widespread — to make it not only impractical, but also financially, legally and logistically. onerous for cruise lines like NCLH (Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings) to comply.
Norwegian Cruise Lines defies DeSantis, state ban
Norwegian filed a complaint on July 13, saying the ban would prevent it from implementing a plan to force passengers to be vaccinated when they return to sail. DeSantis issued an executive order in April banning vaccine passports, and the legislature subsequently placed the ban in state law.
The cruise industry has shut down after high-profile COVID-19 outbreaks at the start of the pandemic. DeSantis pushed for months to resume cruise ship operations, while trying more broadly to block restrictions such as companies requiring vaccine passports and schools requiring students to wear masks.
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The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued what is known as a “conditional navigation order” in October that included a phased approach to resuming cruise ship during the pandemic, with ship operators having to respond to an emergency. set of requirements.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, backed by DeSantis, filed a lawsuit against the conditional navigation order, arguing that the CDC had exceeded its legal authority. Tampa-based U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday sided with the state in June and issued a preliminary injunction against the conditional navigation order.
The Miami-headquartered Norwegian has said in court documents that it has agreed to meet CDC requirements to resume cruises. As part of that process, he told the CDC that at least 95% of passengers and 95% of crew on cruises from Miami would be fully vaccinated — a promise he said would be compromised. by the prohibition of the vaccination passport.
State attorneys have sought to move the Norwegian trial from Miami to the Central Federal District of Florida, where Merryday is based. But Williams on Sunday also rejected that request. The defendant named in the Norwegian lawsuit is State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.