Come Sail Away–As Long As You Have A Vaccine Passport

Want to cruise off into the sunset and leave all your cares behind? Sounds like a great idea as long as you didn’t leave a vaccine passport off your packing list and you plan to sail on Norwegian Cruise Lines out of Florida. Well, at this point anyway. The cruise line is battling it out in court with the State of Florida as to whether it can require passengers to present a vaccine passport to come aboard. To document or not to document vaccination. That is the question for a federal court.

The cruise industry’s ability to operate was an early casualty of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has banned most cruises since March 2020. Forget bon voyage; it’s been ban voyage for almost a year and a half. Norwegian Cruise Lines (“NCL”), headquartered in Miami, was eagerly anticipating getting back into operation with a cruise on the Norwegian Gem scheduled to depart Miami on August 15th.

But who wants to launch the Titanic? With the Delta variant surging and rapidly spreading and the State of Florida a virus hotspot, NCL sought to avoid launching a cruise that might become a COVID catastrophe. Accordingly, it aimed for 100% vaccination of all guests and crew. How would that goal be accomplished though? Aha! Passengers would be required to show documented proof of vaccination against COVID-19. No show; no go.

But this plan did not sit well with Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who has become a national figure for opposing pandemic restrictions. He felt that NCL’s requirement was discriminatory and raised privacy and personal freedom issues. In his view, having to produce a vaccine passport would force passengers to reveal private health information.

A Florida law effective July 1st basically codified an executive order DeSantis issued back in April. Under the new law, a business could be fined $5,000 each time it asked a customer to provide proof that they had been vaccinated. With a capacity of 2,394 passengers, NCL could face a fine of $11,970,000 if it asked each passenger once to produce a vaccine passport. I see a sea of red ink here for the cruise line.

Doing what any reasonable business would do when facing a burdensome legal requirement, the cruise line called its lawyers. And, to no one’s surprise, a lawsuit was filed. Yes, NCL made a federal case out of the situation–literally. A preliminary injunction was sought in federal district court to prevent the State of Florida from enforcing the new law banning businesses from requesting a vaccine passport.

NCL claimed in its court paperwork that a vaccine passport ban would jeopardize public health and unconstitutionally infringe on its rights. In particular, the cruise line claimed that the First Amendment (read “free speech” rights) were violated. The State of Florida replied basically, “Uh, uh.” (Envision vigorous head shaking.)

After a two hour hearing on Friday, Judge Kathleen Williams issued a 59-page ruling on Sunday finding in NCL’s favor. This ruling is intriguing for several reasons. First, the wheels of justice did not grind slowly; they turned at lightning speed, ~48 hours to produce a decision. Second, the ruling was issued on a Sunday. Yes, Lady Justice turned a blind eye to the calendar with an important issue for determination. Third, that’s a lengthy decision to churn out in a two day span. Fourth, the ruling only applies to NCL. Other cruises lines sailing out of Florida will have to fight their own legal battles.

The entry of a preliminary injunction went over like a lead balloon with Gov. DeSantis. He was not just going to roll over. His office issued a statement that an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would be forthcoming. In the meantime, passengers holding tickets for the August 15th sailing of the Norwegian Gem are sailing in a sea of uncertainty as to whether they will or will not ultimately have to produce a vaccine passport.

While it is easy to find your swimsuit and shorts to pack for a cruise, where do you locate your vaccine passport? And, by the way, what exactly is a vaccine passport? A vaccine passport is a physical or digital health credential used to confirm an individual has been vaccinated for a contagious disease to allow travel. Such a passport may be used even more broadly to allow the holder of the passport entry to a location such as a crowded concert which demands proof of vaccination. A vaccine passport could be in the form of a written certificate or a smartphone app.

Israel was the first country to issue a modern vaccine passport when it launched the Green Pass back in February. Green Pass holders are allowed access to restricted venues such as restaurants and gyms. As of May 2021, Israel, China, Bahrain, and Japan were the only countries who had issued vaccine passports to those who had been vaccinated for use in international travel and other purposes.

In the United States, New York was the first state to issue a digital vaccine passport. That state utilizes IBM’s Excelsior Pass app which displays a personalize QR code verifying vaccination status. This app was tested at a Nets basketball game and a New York Rangers hockey game in March 2021. The voluntary Excelsior Pass permits attendance at theaters, event venues, large weddings, and arenas. While the app and the pandemic remain, the New York governor is gone.

Is a national vaccine passport on the horizon? Not according to the White House which has emphatically stated it will not support a system requiring Americans to carry credentials.

While the pandemic lingers, the urge to travel grows stronger. People can only stay cooped up for so long. But traveling involves contact with others who may or may not be vaccinated. Since no end is in sight for the pandemic, a workable solution must be found to balance personal freedoms with public health. Sadly, the ultimate resolution is likely to be handed down by a court and not reached by people (vaccinated and unvaccinated) working together to find an acceptable way to move forward.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you feel comfortable engaging in international travel at this point? Is having to show a vaccine passport an infringement of your personal freedoms and right to privacy? If yes, at what point does the common good justify imposing such a requirement if at all?

2 thoughts on “Come Sail Away–As Long As You Have A Vaccine Passport

  1. I really try not to comment on political things but this one still sits off with me. First let me say, I am not for or against vaccines, to each his own. Every business has the right to make thsir own rules. However what happened to HIPPA? Unless I sign something my own family has no knowledge or authority on my health. Yet, an unapproved vaccine right now has more authority and HIPPA is no where to be found. That’s all, that’s my rant!!!

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  2. Tammy: Thanks for reading. You make valid points. Push comes to shove in this situation because there are competing interests, i.e., privacy v. public health. I simply wish everyone would remain calm and try to work together to figure something out. We have a common enemy–the virus. We shouldn’t turn on each other.

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