(AP) — The first cruise ship
to board passengers at a U.S. port in 15 months is set to sail Saturday from the industry's South Florida
hub, a symbolic step toward normalcy that will be closely monitored by health
experts as vaccines
combat the spread of the coronavirus
in the country.
Officials in the industry hope that the Celebrity
Edge's voyage will serve as a bookend for people
who first realized the gravity of the pandemic
when they heard about deadly outbreaks on crowded ships last year, with guests quarantined for weeks, ships begging to dock, and sickened passengers carried away on stretchers at ports.
“We are excited to be a part of that,” said Russ Schwartz, a Florida school principal
who is honeymooning on the ship and is confident it will be a smooth sailing. “Things have changed drastically. Back then, we really didn’t know much about the virus. Cruises
weren’t prepared at that point.”
Celebrity Cruises, a Royal Caribbean
Cruises brand, claims that at least 95% of those boarding the Celebrity Edge have been vaccinated against the coronavirus in accordance with CDC
health requirements, and the ship will operate at a reduced capacity.
The $1 billion vessel will be led by Capt. Kate McCue, who in 2015 became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship and has a TikTok
following of more than 1 million.
The stakes are high for cruise lines as they emerge from a 15-month CDC-imposed shutdown, during which the three industry behemoths — Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean — had to raise more than $40 billion in financing just to stay afloat in the absence of revenue.
According to Securities and Exchange Commission
filings, they lost $20 billion in the previous year and another $4.5 billion in the first quarter of 2021.
“The cruise lines are getting back on their feet after being crippled by COVID-19
,” said Michael Winkleman, a maritime attorney. “There is simply too much money
at stake for the cruise lines to get it wrong.”
Celebrity Cruises is simply asking guests if they want to share their vaccination
status to comply with both the CDC's 95% vaccination requirement and a new Florida law
prohibiting businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, said spokeswoman Susan Lomax.
Those who do not voluntarily show proof of vaccination will be considered unvaccinated and subjected to additional protocols such as wearing face masks
and being restricted to designated seating areas in common areas such as dining rooms, casinos, and theaters.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) chastised the cruise industry last year for keeping bars, gyms, and self-service buffets open and allowing crew members to congregate even as the pandemic raged.
Beginning in March 2020, data showed 3,689 confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 on cruise ships in US waters, with at least 41 deaths. The CDC says it spent 38,000 person-hours just dealing with the cruise response to COVID-19, including contact tracing for 11,000 passengers.
Medical evacuation and logistical efforts for passengers disembarking on ships such as the Zaandam in Fort Lauderdale
and the Grand Princess in Oakland
diverted resources away from local agencies attempting to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Dozens of passengers have since filed lawsuits, alleging that companies failed to protect and warn them about the virus, particularly following an outbreak on Carnival's Diamond
Princess off the coast of Japan
, which resulted in more than 700 confirmed cases and nine deaths.
The prolonged shutdown has also been challenged in court; in April
, Florida filed a lawsuit against the federal government demanding that cruise ships be allowed to resume sailing, claiming that the ban disproportionately harms the state, where the industry generates billions of dollars in revenue each year.
granted a preliminary injunction last week, preventing the CDC from enforcing sailing conditions that, according to the state, effectively prevent most cruises from taking place.
Celebrity Edge will sail before the injunction takes effect, so it is in accordance with the terms.
The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents roughly 90% of global cruise capacity, said it appreciated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
’ efforts to support the industry, and cruise lines are prioritizing health and safety. Since last summer, approximately 600,000 passengers have sailed on member ships outside the United States
, with incidence of the coronavirus remaining low.
“The industry’s protocols are working as intended,” the association said in a statement, adding that “the highly successful rollout of vaccines in the United States is a game changer that facilitates safe travel
According to the CDC, approximately 44% of people in the United States are fully vaccinated, and new COVID-19 cases in the United States are significantly lower than earlier this year.
Katherine Quirk-Schwartz, a Celebrity Edge passenger and registered nurse
who is looking forward to the upcoming cruise and hopes to meet Capt. McCue, recalled how her hospital
took in some of the first COVID-19 patients from cruise ships when they were finally allowed onshore in Florida after days of wrangling.
“It’s almost like full circle. It’s amazing to reflect on that,” she said. “As more things change, more things open up, we will see more of the vaccine’s effects. People are getting back to living, people are getting back to sailing.”
From Dallas, David Koenig of the Associated Press