Judge upholds steamship COVID mandate: 'The danger to the public is not the vaccine'

A federal judge upheld the Steamship Authority's right to require employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 and chided a group of employees that asked for an injunction for promoting misinformation.

U.S. District Court Justice Richard Stearns said the 11 plaintiffs in "Captain Albert Brox et. al" versus The Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority failed to prove the mandatory vaccination policy violated their religious or constitutional rights.

"The public interest in safely accessing ferry services to Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard without the fear of contracting COVID-19 from the Authority's unvaccinated employees is profound," Stearns wrote in the opinion filed March 10.

The Steamship Authority fast ferry MV Iyanough in West Yarmouth in this 2021 file photo.

The court documents says most of the plaintiffs cited religious reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but Stearns said religious exemptions cannot be allowed to compromise the safety and well-being of other employees, customers and vendors and undermine trust and confidence in the Steamship Authority.

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He also cited a similar case involving Massachusetts General Brigham Hospital and said, "The record suggests that plaintiffs' opposition to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is based primarily on 'Philosophical, medical or scientific beliefs, or personal fears or anxieties' rather than bona fide religious practices."

Stearns took the plaintiffs to task for not only taking the "scientifically unsupported theory" that vaccines do not work but also for advancing "the fabulous proposition that vaccinated persons are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than those who are not."

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"It is a matter of utmost urgency that these dangerous and fallacious assertions be laid to rest. The CDC has determined — and no responsible world health organization or scientific body disagrees — that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against the virus and its variants, especially in protecting against 'severe illness, hospitalization and death,'" Stearns wrote.

"The danger to the public is not the vaccine but persons who, like the plaintiffs, insist on behaviors that endanger all those with whom they have contact."

The Steamship Authority issued a COVID-19 vaccination verification policy on Jan. 3, stating that all employees must have at least one dose by Jan. 5 and be fully vaccinated by Feb. 16, according to court records.

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"The policy allowed for employees to seek medical or religious accommodations on a case-by-case basis," Stearns wrote.

After reviewing the plaintiffs' requests for exemptions, including face-to-face interviews, the Steamship Authority "rejected the accommodation requests as imposing an undue hardship on day-to-day operations," Stearns wrote.

Plaintiffs filed suit against the Steamship Authority and Human Relations Director Janice Kennefick in Barnstable Superior Court on Feb. 11.

The suit was later moved to the U.S. District Court in Boston.

Will Steamship Authority employees appeal the COVID vaccine ruling?

Patrick Daubert, a Hyannis attorney representing the plaintiffs, said they are deciding whether to appeal the judgment.

"I cannot speak for any of my clients as to whether or not they will submit to the vaccine," Daubert said in an email.

"I can tell you that the judge entirely failed to address the sworn affidavit filed by another Steamship Authority employee, who was not a party to the lawsuit, which demonstrated that the Steamship Authority treated medical exemption/accommodation requests more favorably than religious exemption/accommodation requests."

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Daubert said the judge disregarded evidence submitted by the plaintiffs that says COVID-19 vaccines are not effective at preventing transmission of disease.

He said a U.S. 5th Circuit Court (Texas) judge ruled differently on Feb. 17 in a case similar to the Steamship Authority lawsuit.

That case was Sambrano v. United Airlines. A legal website called JD Supra says the 2-1 opinion reverses the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction against the airline’s mandatory vaccine program.

The decision sends the case back to the district court to address several factors, including whether the threatened injury to the plaintiffs outweighs the injury to their airline employer, according to the legal website.

Framed by the Colonial Acres Beach boardwalk in West Yarmouth, the Steamship Authority's Woods Hole ferry heads off to Nantucket in this December 2021 file photo.

Sean Driscoll, spokesperson for the Steamship Authority, said he doesn't currently have a comment about Stearns' decision because it's a matter of an ongoing lawsuit.

"I also can’t comment on any personnel information such as terminations," Driscoll wrote in an email.

Steamship Authority officials said in court documents that the authority was formed by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1960 to provide ferry service to the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket to people "from all walks of life, including young children, elderly individuals and the immunocompromised."

Many of the Steamship Authority's 750 employees, including each of the plaintiffs, interact with fellow employees, customers or vendors as part of their jobs, according to court documents.

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"The policy does not invade plaintiffs' right to refuse medical treatment as nothing in the policy compels employees to submit to a vaccination," Stearns wrote, saying they can choose to work elsewhere.

"Although several plaintiffs will be terminated ... if they continue to defy the policy, four of the 11 plaintiffs are now vaccinated and will not be terminated."

Protecting the health and safety of crew members and the public is paramount, Stearns wrote.

"Although perhaps wrongly attributed to the great Justice Holmes, there is Holmesian wisdom in the adage that 'your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.'"

Contact Cynthia McCormick at cmccormick@capecodonline.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Cape Cod Steamship Authority employees must get vaccinated, judge rules