(1:55 p.m. EDT) -- Royal Caribbean started its first test cruise out of PortMiami on Sunday, sending Freedom of the Seas on a simulated voyage to run through the necessary protocols to resume sailing from a U.S. homeport, as mandated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..
Freedom of the Seas left PortMiami at 7 p.m. June 20, with 600 passengers onboard, as well as CDC officials. The volunteers were all Royal Caribbean employees, and everyone onboard the vessel is vaccinated, as well as the crew, a line spokesperson said.
Royal Caribbean President Michael Bayley posted about the test cruises on his Facebook page:
"A requirement is that U.S-based ships conduct simulation cruises to test health and safety protocols if the cruise line expects to return to sailing with under 95% vaccinated guests or crew.
As a family brand, Royal Caribbean typically sails with 10 percent of our guests under 12 years old, and today, they are ineligible for the vaccine. We are committed to continuing to deliver memorable vacations to families and that is why we are conducting simulated cruises."
The two-night simulated sailing docked alongside is at the line's private island, Perfect Day at CocoCay, today until 5 p.m. The island received its first cruise passengers since the pandemic began last week, when Adventure of the Seas made a two-day port stop.
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The ship will arrive back at PortMiami on Tuesday at 6 a.m. If all goes well and the ship is approved for revenue cruises by the CDC, the first Freedom of the Seas sailing with revenue passengers will take place on July 2, 2021.
Ship-Specific Protocols Being Tested
During the simulated cruise, Royal Caribbean will run through the protocols it outlined for Freedom of the Seas last week, which include different procedures for guests who are vaccinated and those who are not, the line said.
Volunteers on the test cruise have been identified to play different roles onboard, Cruise Critic was told.
Because the state of Florida does not allow businesses to ask for proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, Royal Caribbean has made the act voluntary – and there are incentives to being vaccinated.
If you voluntarily show your vaccine card when you board, you are allowed to skip COVID-19 testing, and you are issued a wristband that identifies you as vaccinated. Vaccinated passengers onboard will have areas of the ship where they can be with other vaccinated guests, and take off their masks.
Select showtimes in the entertainment venues will be offered for vaccinated passengers only. Similarly, meals in the ship's main dining room will be set up so vaccinated passengers and unvaccinated passengers can eat separately. MyTime dining is not open for unvaccinated passengers. Passengers will need to carry their SeaPass with them for access to most venues.
Passengers who are unvaccinated, and are eligible to do so; or people who decline to present proof of vaccination will be considered unvaccinated and must undergo extensive COVID-19 testing, with as many as three tests required before and during their cruise.
First, passengers must present documentation of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before boarding. A second PCR test is taken at the terminal as they embark. Finally, passengers will have to take a PCR test before they disembark at the end of the voyage. They must pay for their own tests, which are $136 per person for the trio. Children who are not able to be vaccinated will not pay these fees, and the testing requirements do not apply to those under two years old.
Passengers who decline to show proof of vaccination will have a hole punched in their SeaPass card.
Because the ship could be carrying a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, guests will need to wear masks onboard when they are outside their cabins, or not seated in a bar or restaurant eating or drinking. Vaccinated passengers will not need to wear masks in the venues that are open just for them, however.
These protocols are limited at this time to Freedom of the Seas; Royal Caribbean has yet to announce regulations for other U.S. sailings.
What Else Is Being Tested?
In its Conditional Sail Order, the CDC outlines a slew of other things that it wants to observe in operation. Among them:
- Proof of social distancing measures
- Embarkation and debarkation procedures, including check in at the terminal
- Seating and meal service in different dining and entertainment areas.
- Procedures for isolating and handling passengers or crew who either have COVID-19 symptoms or test positive for the virus, both onboard and what would happen shoreside. The agency also wants to observe medical evacuation procedures.
- Policies for other areas of the ship, including the casino, spa, the fitness center and other sports activities onboard.
- Private island and port shore excursions.
Given that Royal Caribbean has already been operating in countries outside CDC oversight, such as The Bahamas and Singapore – and what we personally observed on Adventure of the Seas last week -- the line has all of these protocols mostly figured out.
Does The Florida Lawsuit Win Affect Future Test Cruises?
The Freedom of the Seas test cruise is the first of several that Royal Caribbean has scheduled within its fleet.
Now that Odyssey of the Seas has been delayed until August, the next approved test cruise is for Serenade of the Seas, in Alaska, from July 7 to July 11. If that test cruise goes well, the ship is scheduled to be the first ship to return to Alaska since the pandemic began, on July 19.
What has yet to be known if whether the state of Florida's win in a federal lawsuit against the CDC will change the need for test cruises, at least in the Sunshine State. Allure of the Seas is scheduled for a test cruise from Port Canaveral on July 27 through July 29.
In his ruling, the judge said that the CDC overstepped its regulatory authority with the Conditional Sailing Order. The agency has until July 2 to submit new regulations that are more in line with current science regarding COVID-19 and vaccines. If the judge opts not to approve the new regulations, the CSO will become guidelines, as opposed to requirements.
While cruise lines are almost certain to continue many of the protocols they have developed, test cruises could become a step that either falls away or cruise lines adopt simply as a "shake down" sailing.
Until July 18, however, test cruises are a de-facto requirement for cruise lines to continue their U.S. restart.