(6 p.m. EDT) -- With a blast from the horn as it left Port Everglades, Celebrity Edge set sail from Fort Lauderdale today, marking the return of cruising from U.S. homeports after a 15-month hiatus.
Passengers boarding were greeted with claps and cheers from the crew as they came up the gangway. "Welcome back, welcome back" calls were heard throughout the halls, public venues and bars by crew members who, although they were wearing masks, were clearly smiling.
The ship is a little over 36 percent capacity, carrying around 1,100 passengers. All crew are vaccinated, as well as all passengers, save two adults and 24 children.
The milestone sailing will last a week and follows successful restarts by several U.S. lines in both the Caribbean and Europe. Royal Caribbean, Windstar, Silversea and Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Apex have made their return to service this month, in the Caribbean and Greece.
Still, cruises from U.S. homeports -- particularly Florida, which houses lucrative ports such as PortMiami, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral near Orlando -- are the bread and butter of the industry. Without the American market, the cruise industry would not be able to climb back to pre-pandemic success.
Emotional Press Conference
Emotions ran deep at a press conference held at Port Everglades earlier in the day where, among the speeches, allusions were made to how difficult the shutdown has been on not only the cruise line bottom line, but for the port and all the crew, businesses, longshoremen and related businesses that had been out of work.
"Today we are truly making history," Royal Caribbean Group Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said. He proceeded to lead the press conference in a rendition of Jimmy Cliff's song "I Can See Clearly Now."
"It means so much to every individual at our company, every individual in our crew to be part of the story of rebuilding the tourism economy," he said. "We are determined to take all the steps it takes to get through this journey as we start back up."
Captain Kate McCue, who has shattered barriers as the first female captain of a cruise line megaship and has become a social media star on TikTok and Instagram, reminisced about how little everyone knew what would happen when cruising shut down in March 2020 .
"I'm truly proud, humbled and honored to be taking the helm of Celebrity Edge once again today and leading our industry back into the water and back into service," she said, before plaques and gifts were exchanged (She also received an honorary customs port badge for her hairless cat, Bug Naked).
A Long Stoppage
The 15-month pause in operations from the COVID-19 pandemic has been longer for the cruise industry than other aspects of the travel sector. Flights, hotels and resorts returned to service with paying guests in mid-2020.
But the cruise industry also has complex regulations, with direct oversight by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The agency placed the industry first under a mandatory stop order in mid-March 2020, replacing it with a Conditional Sail Order effective October 2020.
The order, known as the CSO, ended up being far more complex than industry leaders hoped. While the cruise industry had united behind a series of health and safety protocols in September 2020 developed by a group called the Healthy Sail Panel, the CDC requirements to return to service added operational hurdles that were too steep for cruise lines to meet.
The CDC's thawing toward the industry came as the U.S. vaccination rate rose. Outside actions, such as a lawsuit filed against the agency by the State of Florida claiming that the CDC was overstepping its authority, also contributed to a more inclusive dialogue with the cruise lines.
Cruise lines also moved ships to homeports outside of the U.S. to return to service faster, although the sailings proved to be a tough sell for cruisers used to easy homeport access.
Handling the Vaccine Debate
Saturday at PortEverglades, passengers were getting used to new rules such as staggered embarkation times that was enforced by port workers. One woman who arrived too early for her check in time had food delivered to the port to eat as she waited.
The passengers who arrived at the correct time found the process smooth. Passports and vaccine cards were presented to be scanned; port workers asked specifically for verification that your card was the original and not a copy or forged. This is in addition to a procedural email that went out before boarding, reminding guests that falsification of vaccination records is a federal crime subject to prosecution.
While the state of Florida has banned vaccine passports, the line is allowed to ask people if they want to show it voluntarily, Celebrity Cruises President Lisa Lutoff-Perlo has said.
Passengers who decline to show their cards are considered unvaccinated and go through a more thorough testing regimen, at their own expense. They must present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 3 days before the cruise, take an antigen test before boarding, a test mid-cruise and finally a test to get back into the United States.
Vaccinated passengers need only take that final test. Celebrity Cruises picks up the tab for that test for those guests, while the ones who are unvaccinated must pay $178 for each one. Children under 16 are exempt from these costs until the end of July, with that age dropping to 12 on August 1.
Another perk for vaccinated passengers: Because Celebrity Edge has more than 95 percent of its guests vaccinated, they do not have to wear masks in public areas of the ship. Unvaccinated passengers do have to remain masked, except in their rooms, outside with social distancing or when eating or drinking. Eveyone wore masks checking in at the terminal.
Ports Have Different Requirements
Celebrity Edge will visit three ports during its weeklong sailing: Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico, and Nassau in The Bahamas.
In Mexico, passengers are required to take ship-sponsored shore excursions. This is a change already from sister line Royal Caribbean's cruises that visit Cozumel; on the first Adventure of the Seas sailing leaving Nassau on June 12, people could roam Cozumel on their own. In the email to guests, Celebrity Cruises said the adjustment was made because of low vaccine rates in the region.
In both Mexico and The Bahamas, where guests can explore on their own, people must follow the current masking and safety guidelines of the country -- a point that the cruise lines now must communicate to their passengers.
In Mexico, that means wearing masks both indoors and outdoors; same policy in Nassau, where restaurants require you to show your vaccine card if you want to eat inside. Because these rules can and have changed -- sometimes even within a week -- cruise line passengers must show some flexibility with their shoreside plans.
Once they boarded, passengers behaved just as they would during any cruise. People visited the spa to make appointments. They sat at the Martini Bar for drinks. They got lunch in the Oceanview Café, or in the Luminae if they were suite class.
The new e-muster system proved to be simple, and easy to do on your own time. With so few people onboard, suitcases arrived to the room in record time.
"It's going to be as normal as anyone would think it was beforehand, if not bettter," said Brian Abel, Celebrity's Senior Vice President for Hotel Operations. "And the big reason is because, at Celebrity, we're sailing with all of our crew vaccinated. Over 95% of the guest vaccinated, which allows us to sail with a lot less restrictions. So, you know, you don't have to wear a mask on board. You don't really need to social distance."
Part of the distancing is coming naturally from the lower capacity. Abel said the line planned to keep capacity low this month and next, and keep building. "You get to enjoy the beautiful ship of Celebrity Edge, and you get to enjoy it with a little bit less people, which actually is a nice thing," he said.
"You know, all the restaurants are open, all the bars are open, we have all the theater shows going on, and it's less people, so you get to do more everywhere, even on the outer decks and the resort decks. And, I think that's great." He added that passenger reviews for Celebrity Millennium are coming in higher than before. "So not only are we getting good results on health and safety, but the guests are saying, this is an even better experience than before."