Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge recently dropped its lines and headed out into the open ocean from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. A year and a half ago, no one would have ever batted an eye at the idea of a 130,000-gross ton U.S. cruise ship setting sail. But, on that day, 15 months after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) first issued the No Sail Order, the event made waves as the first commercial cruise liner to leave a U.S. port with paying passengers aboard since the COVID-19 pandemic began...and the CDC rescinded its order.
“Celebrity is just the first of several lines that plan to restart cruises out of Florida and other U.S. ports over the coming weeks as big-ship cruising finally resumes in U.S. waters,” reported Gene Sloan, one of the nation’s best-known cruise experts, who was actually aboard Celebrity Edge’s “maiden” voyage and documented the whole experience for fellow cruising fans.
While it’s certainly an indication of sunnier skies ahead for the industry that was among one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, it’s not “smooth sailing” quite yet — at least not in a pre-Covid-normal sense. Yes, more and more cruise ships have restarted operations in destinations abroad (Europe and Asia, in particular), and smaller vessels — particularly those built for river and expedition cruising — are trending for their immersive journeys with fewer passengers. Yet, it will likely be early 2022 that we see the majority of the U.S.’s major cruise mega-ships return to normal service. Here’s what you need to know if you’re looking to book and board in the near future.
When Will Cruises Sail Again from U.S. Ports?
Before the pandemic, nearly half of the world’s cruises departed from U.S. ports, according to a 2019 report from Cruise Lines International Association. After a year of not being able to sail in U.S. waters under the No Sail Order, many major cruise lines chose to jump ship and relocate their operations to other destinations around the world in the meantime. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Virgin Voyages, which usually depart from Florida, have all moved forward with announcing sailings from other parts of the world, including Greece, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, and the U.K.
Conversely, several cruise lines do have plans to launch restricted passenger voyages this summer from U.S. ports like Miami and Port Canaveral, Florida; Galveston, Texas; Seattle; New York; and Los Angeles pending CDC approval. Travel Weekly maintains a regularly updated list of lines and ships that have or are currently scheduled to launch, as well as those who have had to continue to postpone.
What Requirements Do Ships Need for a CDC Green Light?
The CDC requires the implementation of the kind of safety measures you’d expect, including screening passengers before embarking, contactless transactions aboard, enhanced cleaning and sanitation measures, upgraded medical facilities, as well as isolating and contact-tracing any passengers who may test positive during the cruise.
Once a cruise line has these measures in place, the CDC will permit them under one of two options:
- They can skip straight to offering restricted (paying) passenger voyages as long as they require that 95% percent of passengers and 98% of crew members are fully vaccinated.
- They can conduct what’s known as a simulated cruise to practice the CDC safety measures with a group of volunteer (non-paying) passengers, but vaccinations will not be required to board the ship (which must carry no more than 10% of its max capacity). At least one successful simulated voyage per ship is required before they earn their Conditional Sailing Certificate.
While the former scenario is a faster way to get paying passengers back on the water (and this was the route Celebrity Edge took with a 99% vaccination rate across its 1,200 passengers), not all cruise ships plan to mandate passenger vaccinations, particular those popular with families with passengers below the age of 12, which is why lines like Disney have opted to go with option two.
Do Passengers Need to Be Vaccinated and Show Proof of Vaccination?
Again, based on the above two pathways to begin sailing again, it will be situational based on policies varying by cruise line and ship.
Your best bet is to do your research thoroughly and regularly, especially as these requirements will likely be evolving. That's already the case in Florida, where a new law that went into effect on July 1 prohibits businesses from requiring customers to be vaccinated or show proof of vaccination — cruises being no exception. While some cruise lines have dropped the requirement of proof of vaccination, Carnival and Norwegian are keeping it in place (and can result in penalties of up to $5,000 per violation) — at least for now.
Will All Passengers Be Required to Get a COVID-19 Test Before the Cruise?
Vaccinated passengers will not, but passengers who are unvaccinated will have to deal with certain protocols to board the ship, including COVID-19 testing at their own cost, using either the PCR or the rapid test. Again, this may change in the coming months as more ships take to the seas and the data informs what decisions the CDC and the cruise lines make.
Do Passengers Need to Wear a Mask?
For cruise ships with high rates of vaccinated passengers, the CDC’s latest May guidelines are in line with the recommendations the agency has made on land: Fully-vaccinated Americans can return to normal life and don’t need to wear masks or social distance in most settings — that means in casinos, bars and restaurants, spas, theaters and more. While social distancing is recommended in crowded or tighter areas — such as stairwells, gangways, elevators, and pools — the CDC will not be requiring it.
As for ships without the vaccination minimums, the mask-wearing requirements will be stricter; however, operators can establish certain sections of the ship to be accessible only to fully vaccinated passengers where masks and physical distancing will not be enforced.
Scott Mitcham, a senior supervisor in operations at Global Rescue, points out another possible factor. "Hand-washing is somewhat abandoned by most travelers on a cruise ship," said Mitcham, who was in the Coast Guard for more than 20 years and has extensive experience aboard cruise liners and vessels. "This is not intentional; it's the 'theme park mindset' with so much to see and do. Away from the cabin and out in common spaces, there's less access to and emphasis on handwashing."
What’s the Entertainment Experience Going to Be Like on Board?
Shows, buffets, casinos, rock-climbing walls — they’ll all still be there, just with limited capacity and certain social-distancing or masking-wearing requirements enforced for non-vaccinated passengers.
One blogger who was aboard Celebrity Edge reported being pleasantly surprised by “the full gamut” of activities being available to them: Everything from trivia sessions and game show-like challenges to speakers to dance classes and live music.
What’s The Experience or Expectation at Different Ports?
This is another area that you’re going to need to do research ahead of time depending on the itinerary. While passengers have permission to explore ports from the CDC — whether that’s on their own or with an independent tour guide — what they can do largely depends on the different country’s rules and regulations. For example, if you’re not fully vaccinated, you may not be permitted to disembark and some locations may also require people to have proof of recent COVID tests. Some countries may require you to book a shore excursion, others may ask that you remain in your cruise line “travel bubbles.”
What If You Book a Trip and It Gets Postponed?
As we’ve learned in the last year, nothing’s 100% predictable when it comes to COVID. Just because the CDC gives a cruise the greenlight to go doesn’t mean it will always happen. Take, for example, Royal Caribbean, which recently had to push the inaugural sail of its ship Odyssey back from July 3 to July 31. Or Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream test cruise that was supposed to set sail on July 6, but has been postponed with no future date confirmed at the time of this posting.
That said, operators have naturally had to become much more flexible. As a result, in almost all cases if your trip is canceled or postponed, you will be able to reschedule or receive a refund. And, in general, at this time, lines are also permitting those who booked to cancel ahead of time with no penalty.
What if Someone Tests Positive for COVID on a Ship?
As long as all the proper measures are taken, the hope is cruise lines will have the ability to manage any cases and avoid a large outbreak across the ship. That means having cabins set aside for quarantines, contact-tracing procedures, and plans for how to debark sick passengers.
There have been a couple of examples of cruisers testing positive already: Two cases on Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Millennium, which launched June 6 from St. Maarten, and another two on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, which launched on June 12 from Barbados. No known spread of the virus occurred in either incident.
Are Travel Protection Services Necessary for a Cruise?
Given how new a return to big-ship cruising is, it’s a good idea to make sure you have a plan to get care if cruising overseas. While there will be a doctor and medical services aboard your ship, once you disembark, your care with them ends. While Global Rescue’s travel membership involves coordination with the medical staff on board, we essentially pick up where they leave off: at the port, where our experts will determine — whatever your illness or injury — your further plan for care and evacuation should you need it.
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