SEATTLE — Norwegian Cruise Line has scored a major victory in its legal battle against Florida, with a federal judge temporarily blocking the state’s law that prevents cruise lines from requiring passengers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
In a nearly 60-page ruling issued late Sunday, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams said Florida failed to “provide a valid evidentiary, factual, or legal predicate” for banning requirements that passengers prove they’ve been vaccinated. Norwegian has shown that suspending the requirement will jeopardize public health, potentially causing “super-spreader” events wherever passengers disembark, she wrote.
The “vaccine passport” ban signed into law in May by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis fails to protect medical privacy or prevent discrimination against unvaccinated people, but it does appear to violate the First Amendment rights of Norwegian Cruise Lines, Williams wrote.
Prior to yesterday’s ruling, Norwegian Cruise Line hosted a ‘Great Cruise Comeback Press Panel’ at Seattle’s Pier 66 on Friday to commemorate the West Coast debut of its newest ship, Norwegian Encore. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) president and CEO Frank Del Rio said that Florida’s ‘vaccine passport’ ban prevented NCL and other cruise lines from safely resuming cruises and that a positive verdict would allow NCL to cruise from Florida, beginning with the Aug. 15 departure of the Norwegian Gem from Miami, with fully vaccinated crew and passengers onboard.
“We believe that around the world, the safest way to cruise is to have everyone 100% vaccinated and have everyone tested at the pier before they go onboard,” he said. “Nothing is going to get in the way of us protecting our guests and our crew and the communities we visit – including politics.”
Referring to Florida as an “outlier” for passing the law, Del Rio added that the company had three choices: “We could break the law, which we would never do, we could accept the law and be forced to operate cruises in a less safe way, or we can challenge the law. And that’s what we did back on July 13 when we filed suit.”
Norwegian had previously said that if it can’t maintain its vaccination policy in Florida, it will have to cancel all voyages leaving from the state or allow unvaccinated passengers on board, and both options would cause significant financial and reputational harm. The pandemic has cost Norwegian more than US$6 billion to date by forcing the company to dock its entire 28-vessel fleet and send nearly 30,000 crew members home. Each canceled seven-day voyage would cost the company another $4 million, the judge noted.
The Norwegian Gem is set to depart from Miami on Sunday – the company’s first voyage from Florida since the pandemic halted its operations. More than 1,200 passengers have already booked tickets, promising to prove they’ve been vaccinated before boarding, the judge noted.
This past weekend, NCL celebrated its highly anticipated return to cruising from the United States with the Aug. 6 departure of Norwegian Encore. The ship departed Seattle over the weekend for its inaugural season of Alaska voyages, the first of NCL’s 17 ships to return to cruising in the U.S.
“This is the safest place on earth”
Joined by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Chairman of the SailSAFE Global Health and Wellness Council, Del Rio doubled down on the company’s SailSAFEprogram, which requires all guests and crew to be 100% fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and take a COVID-19 antigen test (paid for by the cruise line) prior to boarding.
“We committed that we would not start cruise operations unless everyone onboard our vessels were 100% vaccinated. That was the advice of our SailSAFE Healthy Council led by Dr. Gottlieb,” said Del Rio. “We believe in it, and as you’ve seen over the last few weeks with the rise of the Delta variant, more and more companies and governments are following our lead.
“We think that given everything we’re doing, this is the safest place on earth – certainly the safest vacation alternative. We’ve invested a lot of money and time on this but it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition to vaccination and testing, NCL is also operating all cruise ships with reduced capacity at first. For the first 30 days of a ship’s operation, occupancy will be capped at approximately 60%, and will increase to 80% for the next 30 days. “If all goes well,” said Del Rio, “beginning on the 61st day we will resume full operations.”
Gottlieb, who noted that “nothing is 100% and impervious,” believes that NCL’s “two layers of protection” will drastically reduce the risk of exposure and transmission.
“It’s about making sure everyone’s vaccinated, making sure the environment itself has been retrofitted with the highest quality like advanced air filtration techniques, making sure that if there is a case that gets through those layers of protection that you’re going to substantially reduce the risk of secondary spread within the environment, and then if someone becomes ill within that environment making sure you have the capability to get them advanced medical care very quickly,” said Gottlieb. “Again, nothing’s 100% but I feel confident with what we’ve done here.”
“We did not take the last 16 months off”
Noting how it’s been “a long 500 days” since the CDC first announced its No Sail order on March 14, 2020, which effectively shut down cruise ship operations in the United States, Harry Sommer, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line said he was brought to tears at the sight of Norwegian Encore coming into dock in Seattle.
“I started my career at Norwegian Cruise Line back in 2000 and the very first ship I went on back then was the Norwegian Sky, right here from the Port of Seattle,” he said. “It’s just so fitting to come back to this place as we restart cruising back here in the United States.”
Despite being on pause for over a year, Sommer noted that the cruise line “did not take the last 16 months off,” opting instead to refurbish most of its ships. With regards to Norwegian Encore, which was delivered just a few months prior to the start of the pandemic, the company ensured that “every single inch of the ship was fantastically well maintained” in preparation of its inaugural cruise.
“We’ve taken the time to upgrade menus, to increase staffing onboard, to make sure that our staff is ready to welcome our guests and ensure they have a great experience,” said Sommer. “One of the questions that we get frequently is, how is the onboard experience different from last March? And the answer is it’s better since 100% of our guests are vaccinated and tested before they board. Thanks to all the wonderful protocols that Dr. Gottlieb and his team put together, we are able to deliver an onboard experience that really represents what the experience was like back in March.”
Norwegian Encore is now offering week-long voyages to Alaska from Seattle, with calls to Icy Strait Point, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Onboard amenities include the world’s longest race track at sea, the largest outdoor laser tag arena, an escape room, a 10,000 square-foot theatre, an adults-only beach club, the 50-suite The Haven by Norwegian, the new Onda by Scarpetta Italian restaurant and more.
Booster shots: “We’re going to have to wait and see”
With the CEOs of both Moderna and Pfizer announcing in recent weeks that people will likely need a ‘booster’ dose of the COVID-19 vaccine within a year, will cruise lines that are already mandating proof of vaccination update their vaccination policies?
“We’re going to have to wait and see,” said Del Rio. “Dr. Gottlieb is a member of the Pfizer Board of Directors so he will have great insight as to the progress being made. I know that Pfizer, as we speak, is undergoing trials, and one of our executives is a participant in that trial and just got his third shot about a week ago. I know that right now those who are immunocompromised is the first target cohort but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
“The trade community is extraordinarily important to us”
Throughout the pandemic, Norwegian Cruise Line has shown its dedication and loyalty to the travel trade community. In April, for example, it updated its commission policy so that commissions were paid to travel advisors when bookings are paid in full, meaning they no longer have to wait for a future cruise credit booking to sail get paid.
When asked specifically how NCL has helped travel advisors in the past 18 months, Sommer said the following:
“The trade community is extraordinarily important to us. From the very beginning we did our best to support the trade community by doing things like protecting commission and continuing marketing activities with them when many other travel vendors stopped. We’re committed going forward to doubling down on those efforts like commission protection, investment and working in partnership with them.
“The trade community took a hit this last year as many small- and medium-sized businesses did. But we’ve already started to see some rebound in the trade community numbers and we hope to see that continue. We will do everything in our power to make sure that continues in the near future – we are fully in.”
For the latest details about NCL’s redeployment click here.
With files from The Associated Press