(3:50 p.m. EST) -- Today, American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) became the first North American cruise line to mandate proof of COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition for setting sail.
The directives, which take effect July 1, 2021 for all sailings with AQSC and sister-brand Victory Cruise Lines, follows that of U.K.-based Saga Cruises, which became the first international cruise line to make vaccinations against COVID-19 mandatory.
Unlike Saga's mandate, AQSC's announcement covers all passengers, crew and corporate staff.
AQSC founder and CEO John Waggoner sat down with Cruise Critic on Tuesday morning to talk about the company's new vaccine mandate.
"We're still a smaller company," Waggoner said. "We've always, always, always cared about our customers. The safety of both our customers and crew has always been top-of-mind."
"As we've talked about returning to service, we've talked about things like the christening of American Countess, which my whole family will be on. And you go, 'Are you going to treat your family the way you treat every other guest?' And the answer should be 'always.' "
One of the key driving factors behind the company's decision to mandate vaccinations for all passengers and crew came from the company's demographics, which are primarily older American travelers.
"When you look at our demographics, it's about 70 years of age, plus or minus five," Waggoner said. "It's an at-risk group. The vaccine ... is an added layer of safety."
"If we carried 3,000 passengers it might be difficult to impose a vaccination restriction, but because we carry 160 to 400 passengers, I think it's a little bit easier," Waggoner said. "With all of our guests -- and I just turned 65 -- if I was cruising, would I feel personally better if I knew that everybody onboard had the vaccine? I would."
Last month, a survey conducted by Cruise Critic revealed a full 81 percent of respondents would cruise if a vaccine were required prior to setting sail.
"We're going to make a bold move, a bold statement," Waggoner said. "We'll be the first line in all of North America, the first U.S.-flagged cruise line to do that. We understand for some people it might be a little controversial, but at the end of the day my driving principle has always been doing what's right, and I think this is the right decision to make.
"When you look at the timing, we wanted to pick a date far enough out that gave enough time for everybody to get vaccinated. The fact we're in February and we don't mandate this until July is plenty of time for everyone to get vaccinated."
Waggoner also noted the July date was chosen to give passengers ample time to acknowledge that if they wish to cruise with AQSC or Victory, they will need to provide proof of vaccination. Those who do not wish to be vaccinated, or who no longer wish to sail, will be provided with full refunds.
By giving passengers five months to come to terms with the decision, Waggoner hopes passengers can make an informed choice about whether to travel -- and whether to follow the rules set forth.
"It's like if I say I'm going to fly on an airline, but I'm opposed to wearing masks so I'm not going to wear one," Waggoner said. "We've seen the people who have tried that and get taken off the plane."
While the subject of vaccinations sparks much debate in person and online, Waggoner said vaccinations are likely to be the new norm when it comes to travel in the COVID-19 world, much as masking mandates and physical distancing guidelines have become more commonplace over the past year.
He's also aware that this decision could cost him some passengers but reiterates it is being done to keep everyone onboard safe.
"I think it's the new norm," Waggoner said of vaccinations. "As a management team, we understand we'll lose a few people. But we'll also gain a few people. If you had the ability to cruise on a boat knowing that everyone was fully vaccinated or that only 90 percent of the people were vaccinated, which would you chose?"
As to which vaccine passengers obtain, Waggoner said the most important thing is to be fully vaccinated. For those receiving Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, that means having both doses completed before setting sail. Those receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, pending approval, are able to receive just a single dose as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Proof of vaccination will be checked both with a precruise online questionnaire and will be verified physically during the precruise hotel stay that is included with each AQSC voyage.
Other health and safety protocols for combatting the spread of COVID-19 will still be in place, too, including COVID-19 PCR tests on all sailings.
"We'll still have 100 percent testing," Waggoner said. "We're just trying to do everything we can to make sure our guests are comfortable."
Vaccinating crewmembers is an easier challenge for AQSC and Victory, as the vast majority of workers are Americans working on American-flagged vessels. Although vaccinations for crew have been proposed by other lines, including those operating as part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, vaccinating international crewmembers is far from straightforward.
That is less of an issue aboard AQSC and Victory vessels, where maritime workers are already prioritized by the U.S. Government.
"Under Group 1C is critical transportation workers," Waggoner said. "We fall under there because most of our guys have a (Transportation Workers Identification Card). We've already given them letters of support. Group 1C has not opened up yet, but as soon as it does, we help our crew members to obtain vaccinations. Because the vaccine is free, all they have to do is sign up."
Waggoner points out that both lines hire most of their crews from four or five individual states, and noted the company isn't opposed to flying or bussing crew members from one area of the country to another in order to ensure operations flow smoothly should individuals encounter issues being vaccinated.
On the subject of crew vaccinations, Waggoner notes the Federal Maritime Commission just sent a letter to President Joe Biden and his administration, requesting the urgent vaccination of the nation's maritime workforce at the earliest possible instance.
Although created primarily to ensure the flow of goods and services from cargo vessels, U.S.-based crewmembers sailing aboard U.S.-flagged ships would be included under these provisions from the FMC.
At the end of the day, Waggoner reiterated, the decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all passengers and crew comes down to keeping guests, crew and staff safe.
"We're always going to err on the side of safety," he said. "We're excited about it, and we think it's the right thing to do."