Update: CDC Says "Don't Sail," Cruise Line Offers Refunds

March 15, 2010

Update,7:33 p.m. EST -- Celebrity spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez tells us that embarkation will take place Sunday, March 21, from 4 to 6 p.m. The ship is scheduled to sail at 7 p.m. Passengers on the shortened sailing will receive a refund in the form of an onboard credit equivalent to two days of the cruise fare paid; any unused portion of this credit will be refunded at the end of the sailing. They will also receive a future cruise certificate for an amount equal to 25 percent of the cruise fare paid. Alternately, passengers can cancel their sailing and receive a full refund plus a future cruise certificate equal to 15 percent of the cruise fare paid.

(7:05 p.m. EST) -- More Noro news: Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a "no-sail recommendation" to Celebrity Cruises after outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, including some confirmed Norovirus cases, have sickened passengers on three consecutive sailings of Celebrity Mercury. The CDC is recommending that the Celebrity cruise ship not sail for four days, once it returns to its Charleston homeport on Thursday.

While cruise ships are often delayed a few hours or even a day for enhanced sanitation procedures, it's rare for a ship to stay in port that long for a CDC investigation. According to the CDC's Web site for gastrointestinal outbreak reporting, the last no-sail recommendation, for a two-day port stay, was issued in 2006 to Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, and prior to that, to Royal Cruise Line's Royal Odyssey in 1997. The CDC can also issue no-sail recommendations, or even orders, for especially poor performance during regular CDC ship inspections.

The no-sail recommendation is not an order, CDC Health Communications Specialist Jay Dempsey told Cruise Critic. The CDC has notified Celebrity Cruises that it would like to spend four days onboard the ship to "figure out why the controls that have been put in place aren't working," but Celebrity is not obligated to remain in port that long.

According to a statement from Celebrity, the cruise line will delay boarding of Celebrity Mercury's upcoming cruise until Sunday, March 21 -- two days later than originally scheduled -- to allow the CDC almost the full four days of inspection and cleaning it requested. The ship will sail an altered itinerary, as follows: at sea, Monday; Key West, Tuesday; Cozumel, Wednesday; Costa Maya, Thursday; at sea, Friday; Nassau, Saturday; and at sea, Sunday.

The statement quotes Dan Hanrahan, president and chief executive officer of Celebrity Cruises, who says, "I would like to apologize for the inconvenience these modified itineraries will cause our guests. I have made this decision to end the current sailing early and delay the next sailing because we want to maintain our high health standards onboard our ships, while providing our guests with the best cruise experience possible." Remember, the decision is ultimately the cruise line's; the "no sail" is a recommendation, not an order. The statement continues: "The extra time we are taking to sanitize the ship will help prevent any additional guests from becoming ill."

Celebrity has not yet announced at what time embarkation will begin on Sunday nor what compensation passengers on the shortened cruise will receive.

The current cruise, which began March 8, is being cut short by one day to prevent additional passengers and crewmembers from becoming ill. CDC inspectors are already onboard, overseeing an enhanced cleaning of the ship.

Celebrity Mercury's troubles began on the February 15 sailing, during which 411 out of 1,838 passengers were infected with the Norovirus. The next sailing (February 26) departed a day late to allow time for extra sanitation, yet 182 passengers still fell ill on that cruise. On the current sailing, 342 of 1,829 passengers are experiencing symptoms.

Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads rapidly wherever there are many people confined to a small area, like nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dormitories ... and cruise ships. For more information, see our article on Norovirus - What You Need to Know.

Stay tuned.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor