Pursuing a populist but not necessarily conservative political policy regarding vaccination disclosures could cost Florida a cruise ship operator, and may also cost Governor Ron DeSantis one of the feathers he’s earned as a pro-business leader during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Norwegian Cruise Lines Chief Executive Officer Frank Del Rio threatened on an earnings call to pull his company’s operations out of the Sunshine State if his company would be prevented from delivering on a guarantee that passenger and crewmember would be vaccinated prior to sailing from the United States. The cruise line operator believes that offering fully vaccinated cruises provides the company with marketing advantage that would help fill ships.
But DeSantis signed a bill passed by the Florida legislature last month barring vaccination requirement policies from businesses, government agencies and schools. But it’s a thorny issue that is forcing DeSantis to choose between the free association rights of businesses and the privacy rights of individuals. On the surface, the new state law guarantees equal access to certain services and activities for all citizens, regardless of their vaccination status. But the law also strips the rights of private organizations to do business and offer services to attract a certain type of customer, a right that conservatives like DeSantis have often staunchly defended in the past.
Conservatives have long defended the private right of individuals and organizations to decide what is best for themselves, their members, and customers. Not long ago, conservatives across the country applauded the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that upheld those private rights in cases like Masterpiece Cakes v. Colorado, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, and Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, in which the courts upheld the constitutional rights of individual organizations to make decisions on how best to operate their businesses.
DeSantis’s position on vaccine mandates runs counter to those constitutional decisions, putting him in the awkward political position of being the heavy hand of government interfering in private business matters, albeit in this case to defend the privacy rights of the individual.
DeSantis is defending a populist position rather than a traditionally conservative one that also runs counter to a previous court ruling. In 1905 after a smallpox pandemic ravaged the state of Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that states have the right to mandate vaccines in order to protect public health, writing: “The rights of the individual may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint to be enforced by reasonable regulations as the safety of the general public may demand.”
While the ruling in Jacobson gave rise to the anti-vax movement, the ruling has been upheld in a number of cases over the years. Still, the ruling does provide limitations on the power of the state to enforce vaccination policy, and includes exemptions for religious and medical reasons.