When the 2,394-passenger Norwegian Gem sets sail from Miami to Mexico and Honduras on Sunday, August 15, it will be with everyone onboard vaccinated against COVID-19 and a preliminary injunction from a federal court judge that allows the cruise line to require proof of vaccination from all passengers.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (NCLH)—parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, upscale line Oceania Cruises, and luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises—went to court to argue against a Florida law, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in May, that bars businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccine.
The 28-ship company said in its lawsuit that the law prevented it from implementing its 100-percent vaccination policy in Florida and that it could lead to cancellations or force the company to sail with unvaccinated guests, both of which would cause financial harm. A federal judge agreed.
Only two days after hearing arguments in the cruise company’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams on August 8, in a 59-page ruling, found the Florida law both violates free speech and interferes with interstate commerce. She called the law “an obstacle” to NCLH getting back to business amid the pandemic. She also cited public health concerns noting that Florida is currently a COVID-19 hotbed.
NCLH is the first cruise company sailing from Florida with a 100-percent vaccine requirement. The company has promised that requirement will be in place on all of its sailings around the world through October. Other cruise lines are either sailing with at least 95 percent vaccinated passengers and crew (as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or with their own health and safety measures in place that still result in the majority of those onboard being vaccinated.
In Florida, other lines have been getting around the law by asking guests to voluntarily disclose that they have been vaccinated. If they don’t, they face additional restrictions placed on unvaccinated guests—such as where they can go on the ship and added testing and mask requirements.
Officials of NCLH hailed Judge Williams’s decision, saying vaccines are the “cornerstone” of the cruise company’s SailSAFE health and safety plan. That plan was developed by an advisory council that includes Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, and Dr. Stephen Ostroff, a former acting commissioner of the FDA.
“The health and safety of our guests, crew, and the communities we visit is our number one priority,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of NCLH. “It’s not a slogan or a tagline, we fiercely mean it, and our commitment to these principles is demonstrated by the lengths our company has gone through to provide the safest possible cruise experience from Florida.”
Nicolas Graf, associate dean at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, said the judge’s ruling creates a precedent that other businesses and institutions may use to request proof of vaccination in Florida. “This is a very positive development for Norwegian, the cruise industry, and for everyone else in terms of public health and safety as COVID cases start to rise again,” said Graf.
The state of Florida has filed a notice of appeal. In a statement, the governor’s office said, “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.”
Norwegian Cruise Line is NCLH’s first cruise brand back in business after more than 500 days of no sailings due to the global pandemic. The Norwegian Jade was the first of the company’s vessels to relaunch cruises in Greece in late July, followed by the Norwegian Encore, which resumed sailings from Seattle to Alaska on August 7. The Norwegian brand expects to have 9 of its 17 ships operating in the Caribbean this winter. Regent Seven Seas returns with cruises from the U.K. in September, and Oceania restarts in the Mediterranean in October.