In this May 4, 2020 file photo, Norwegian cruise ships are docked at Portsmouth Marine Terminal in Portsmouth, Va. Norwegian Cruise Lines is threatening to skip Florida ports because of the governor's order banning businesses from requiring that customers be vaccinated against COVID-19. Credit: Stephen M. Katz / The Virginian-Pilot via AP

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sued in federal court Tuesday to overturn a Florida law that bars businesses from requiring customers to show they received a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Miami-based company, which operates three cruise lines, asserts that it tried and failed to persuade the state to give it leeway from the law so it can ensure that 100 percent of its passengers are vaccinated.

Those assurances, it says, are critical for the company’s lines to fully do business not only in the U.S., but in foreign ports whose countries mandate strict protocols. The company has plans to start sailing again on Aug. 15.

Norwegian’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, seeks a preliminary injunction against the state. It names Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees as the sole defendant.

The complaint is the latest round of friction between a cruise industry that has been largely idled since COVID-19 forced a halt in operations in March 2020, and federal and state governments seeking to set the terms for resuming business.

For months, federal government health authorities have sought to ensure ships can operate without a repeat of outbreaks aboard ships last spring. And the cruise lines themselves collaborated on industry standards to protect passengers.

Over time, vaccine requirements were among the conditions imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under a complex system of protocols called “controlled sail orders.”

But a recently passed Florida law bars businesses from requiring proof of vaccines from customers, creating a new obstacle for the lines to resume sailing out of Florida ports.

Norwegian’s lawsuit takes direct aim at the law, calling it a “misguided intrusion” into carefully laid plans to resume safe operations under CDC guidelines.

Those guidelines came under assault in May when the state sued the CDC in a Tampa federal court to force the agency to drop them because, the state said, they were an overreach of federal power.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday agreed, granting the state’s request for a preliminary injunction against the CDC. He prevented the CDC from enforcing its protocols past July 18, which is less than a week from now.

The ruling is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

In a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel late Tuesday, Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, called Norwegian’s suit meritless, accused the company of discrimination against children and others who have not been vaccinated and vowed to hit the company with heavy fines if it violates the state’s law.

“Every other industry in Florida has safely reopened while still respecting the right of every Floridian to make their own medical choice when it comes to vaccinations,” Pushaw said in an email.

“At present, approximately 60 percent of eligible Floridians have been vaccinated against COVID-19, which means Norwegian is purposefully excluding 40 percent of Florida’s residents from the people it is willing to serve,” she added.

“This Administration will not tolerate such widespread discrimination. Therefore, Norwegian faces a $5,000 fine from whom they demand a vaccination status.”

But in an affidavit accompanying his company’s suit in Miami, Norwegian CEO and President Frank Del Rio told the court that passengers who sail aboard the company’s cruise lines seek a high level of confidence that they will be safe from COVID-19.

“Maintaining our passengers’ trust and rebuilding consumer confidence remains challenging, particularly among NCLH’s older passenger base,” he wrote. “The maintenance of consumer confidence and goodwill is essential for sustainable business success in the cruise industry.

“Cultivating passenger confidence and trust in the health and safety of cruise voyages has become more vital than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless it is able to verify vaccination status, NCLH’s ability to attract and assure its passengers will be severely undercut.”

Del Rio added that requiring full vaccination for 100 percent of passengers and crew is consistent with “vaccine protocols required by many foreign ports where NCLH ships are scheduled to visit.”

Many of those ports, Del Rio said, require proof of vaccination to not only enter them in the first place, but to do so without mandatory quarantines and testing.

Story by David Lyons, South Florida Sun Sentinel.