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You won’t need a COVID vaccine to board some cruises—but it will certainly make your experience more enjoyable.
As the mainstream cruise industry gets back to business, there’s a clear message being delivered. If you want to return to what one might call “normal good times,” get a vaccine.
U.S. cruising officially resumed, following a 15-month pandemic shutdown, when Celebrity Edge embarked from Fort Lauderdale for Mexico and the Bahamas on June 26. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line returned to the scene, too, with one and two ships, respectively, setting sail just in time for guests to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday onboard. All sailed cautiously at reduced capacity.
Vaccinated folks on all four ships bragged about social gatherings, lavish meals, and enjoying the fact that they could actually find a lounge chair at the pool—albeit with social distancing and some mask requirements. The unvaxxed—which on the initial cruises were mostly kids—were relegated to second class with restrictions on what they could and couldn’t do. This included being assigned specific times for dining and seeing a show.
All the ships sailed at reduced capacity, allowing space for quarantine should a COVID-19 outbreak occur. Crew were both vaccinated and masked—some wearing N-95s.
Cruise lines have had to navigate strict rules set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to resume sailing. Their choice was between a quick restart with at least 95 percent of passengers and crew vaccinated, or sailing without a vaccine requirement but far less leniency around masking and social distancing. Unvaxxed ships also had to embark on test sailings with CDC inspectors onboard evaluating health and safety protocols before carrying guests.
At the same time, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law barring any business from requiring vaccine passports, or what amounts to showing your vaccination card to gain entry to hotels and board cruises and planes. There are stiff fines—$5,000 per person for violators—that could cost a cruise line millions of dollars and make sailing a moot point were the law to be enforced.
It’s a complicated situation for cruise lines. An added wrinkle: Smaller American-flagged ships like UnCruise Adventures and American Cruise Lines are too small for the CDC to bother with. Yet they’re sailing along the Mississippi and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers, with everyone onboard vaccinated.
Below are a few approaches by some of the biggest lines, as they each try to find a way to return to the sea.
Royal Caribbean’s workaround in Florida is to “strongly recommend” all passengers be vaccinated but sail without a vaccine requirement. This not only gets around the DeSantis law but also allows the line to tap into the lucrative summertime family market—including children under the age of 12 who don’t yet qualify for a vaccine.
Following a successful test cruise, during which CDC inspectors and 650 Royal Caribbean employees sailed, the line was able to prove it had health and safety protocols in place. It then launched its 4,275-passenger Freedom of the Seas from Miami on three- and four-night Bahamas sailings. On the first sailing, the line operated at 40 percent occupancy, and with only 7 percent of guests unvaccinated, most of them children. Royal plans to increase occupancy throughout the summer, which may mean higher unvaxxed numbers.
For those who haven’t gotten jabbed, the Freedom experience may not be what they expect. They’ll have to mask up indoors and will be barred from the casino, spa, sushi restaurant, and popular maritime-themed Schooner Bar. Worse still? They won’t be invited to the ’70s-themed party. If the uninoculated want to see a show, they’ll have to sit in the back of the theater at a designated showtime. Adults who are vaccinated need to follow the same rules when in the company of their unvaccinated progeny.
[The unvaxxed] will have to mask up indoors and be barred from the casino, spa, sushi restaurant, and popular maritime-themed Schooner Bar. Worse still? They won’t be invited to the ’70s-themed party.
Unvaxxed guests over the age of 12 will also have to pay for both COVID-19 testing and travel insurance to cover any medical expenses and medical evacuation. And if they want to explore in Nassau, they’ll be limited to shore excursions (no independent touring allowed).
Royal has four more ships slated to restart in Florida without a vaccine requirement—including the line’s new 5,498-passenger Odyssey of the Seas. On the other hand, on all its other itineraries, including sailings from Galveston, Texas, and Seattle (for Alaska cruises), Royal is going with the CDC’s 95 percent rule.
Disney Cruise Line and MSC Cruises have also indicated they plan to sail ships from Florida without a vaccine requirement that meets the CDC’s 95 percent threshold.
On ships with vaccine requirements, the two-tiered system will be less evident. Both Celebrity Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line are going the 95 percent vaccinated route on all their sailings, while still trying to navigate DeSantis’s restrictions in Florida.
Even with mostly vaccinated guests onboard, the 4,000-passenger Carnival Horizon, which embarked from Miami on July 4, had to make an itinerary adjustment. A planned stop in Bimini was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Bahamian island. Carnival also resumed sailing its 4,000-passenger Carnival Vista to Mexico and Roatan, Honduras, out of Galveston.
Both Carnival ships are operating at about 70 percent capacity, passengers not required to wear masks except in the cruise terminal during embarkation and disembarkation (which is a CDC requirement). Comedy clubs are open; the buffet still is self-serve—though the cruise line’s infamous hairy chest contest did not make the cut.
Carnival’s brand ambassador, John Heald, bragged on Facebook that of the 2,940 passengers onboard Carnival Vista, 888 had never cruised with Carnival before. “Hashtag, gobsmacked,” Heald said. “If that doesn’t show you how desperately people want to cruise. . . . And they are putting their faith in us to keep them safe, which we will.”
But Heald also warned there may be hiccups. “You can’t stop cruising for 15 months and then suddenly go again with hundreds of new protocols and expect everything to be perfect,” he said.
Still, cruise fans anxious to get back to sea appear willing to make a few sacrifices.
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