A federal judge ruled Sunday Norwegian Cruise Line can require passengers to show proof of vaccination despite a Florida law that prohibits them from doing so—the first in a potential series of legal rulings against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies barring Covid-19 restrictions in the state even as it becomes an epicenter of the pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams issued a preliminary injunction against Florida’s ban on so-called vaccine passports as it applies to Norwegian, ruling the cruise line can require vaccination proof as the case moves forward because it’s likely they’ll ultimately succeed.
Williams ruled the vaccine passport ban “imposes significant burdens on interstate commerce” and violates the First Amendment because it subjects Covid-19 vaccines to restrictions that don’t apply to other vaccines or documentation, and said the state has “failed to demonstrate” banning proof of vaccination “is justified by a substantial government interest.”
Florida also showed “no evidence” the ban “is materially effective at either protecting the medical privacy of Florida residents or preventing discrimination against unvaccinated individuals,” Williams said, adding their argument instead “appears to support the opposite conclusion” because the Florida law still allows for companies to impose other restrictions on unvaccinated people like making them take multiple Covid-19 tests.
The ruling came as the state faced several new lawsuits over DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting schools from imposing their own mask mandates, which is now the subject of at least three legal challenges from Florida parents, including those of children with disabilities who allege the order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The other mask lawsuits argue DeSantis’ order violates the Florida Constitution, which stipulates “adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools.”
DeSantis’ office said in a statement to Forbes the state “disagree[s] with the judge’s legal reasoning” in the Norwegian case—alleging the vaccine passport ban “does not even implicate, let alone violate, anyone’s speech rights”—and will appeal the ruling.
“Amid myriad, rapidly-changing requirements regarding quarantining and testing, there is one constant that facilitates cruise line customers’ access to advertised ports of call: documentary proof of vaccination will expedite passengers’ entry into virtually every single country and port where Plaintiffs intend to sail,” Williams ruled, adding if Norwegian doesn’t ask for proof of vaccination, “it will impede the ability of Plaintiffs to manage the business of vessels at foreign and interstate ports and lead to incalculable and unpredictable delays in travel.”
DeSantis’ office told Forbes it cannot comment on the specifics of the mask mandate ban lawsuits, but pointed to the governor’s comments at a recent press conference where he was asked about potential legal challenges against the order more generally. “I think we’ll end up winning at the end of the day,” DeSantis said before going on to question the effectiveness of mask wearing in schools and “the emotional, the academic, the physiological” effects on kids from wearing masks. “I think the fairest thing to do is just say, let parents make the decisions.”
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Legal experts cited by CNN have cast doubt that DeSantis’ school mask mandate ban will survive legal scrutiny, with Columbia University law professor Richard Briffault telling CNN the order is “no more than a glorified press release.” “The executive order itself does not do anything that carries legal consequences,” said Briffault, while CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said “it is highly unlikely that the courts would permit the state to withhold funding from school districts which insist on masking children as a necessary health measure.” A similar ban on mask mandates was recently temporarily struck down in state court in Arkansas.
DeSantis’ policies did get a win in court when both district and appeals courts sided with Florida in the state’s lawsuit against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lawsuit struck down the CDC guidelines governing Covid-19 protocols on cruise ships, including vaccination requirements for some ships that opt against doing test cruises to gauge their Covid-19 protocols. That ruling appears to have had little practical effect, however, as cruise lines have said they would follow the CDC guidelines anyway.
Florida has become one of the biggest Covid-19 hotspots on the planet, with hospitals filling up as the state repeatedly sets new records for one-day case rates, recording nearly 24,000 new cases on Saturday. DeSantis’ hands-off response to the Covid-19 crisis has become increasingly controversial as a result, with even Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.) saying Sunday he disagrees with the governor’s policies. The GOP governor has continued to play down the surge, however, claiming it is “seasonal” and saying, “Unfortunately, government can’t just end” the pandemic. “These waves ebb and flow,” DeSantis said Friday. “Governments’ attempts to control that…have been incredibly, incredibly harmful and incredibly damaging.”