ONBOARD THE CELEBRITY EDGE -- When the Celebrity Edge departed Fort Lauderdale last weekend on the first U.S. cruise since the cruise shutdown, it needed to have a vaccinated passenger rate of at least 95%, as per the CDC conditions it agreed to meet.
However, a much-publicized Florida law in theory prevented the line from asking for proof of vaccination in order to sail. As a result, Celebrity had to change its adult vaccine mandate for cruises from Florida; instead, it made vaccination a recommendation and said that guests who declined to show proof at boarding "will be treated as unvaccinated and subject to additional protocols, restrictions and costs for Covid-19 testing."
The cruise line's situation of having to comply with conflicting CDC mandates and Florida law -- and which Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain described here as being "caught in a fight between two Titans" -- seemed to present yet another roadblock in the industry's return to service.
But once the Celebrity Edge's lines were untied and the ship departed for the Western Caribbean, it seemed to be much ado about nothing. According to Celebrity, 100% of the adults on this cruise are inoculated. With about 20 kids onboard, that means that 99% of the roughly 1,200 passengers provided proof of full vaccination.
The end result is that this sailing feels remarkably normal. The only people wearing masks are children and the crew (the crew are all vaccinated and as per CDC guidelines can remove the face coverings, something that Brian Abel, Celebrity's head of hotel operations, said will likely happen after the first four to five sailings). There is no mandatory social distancing in any situation: At the theater, for example, people can sit wherever they wish, although ushers try to encourage them to spread out. Tables are not spread six feet apart in restaurants, and people can fill the seats at the bars as they normally do. The dance floor was packed for the Silent Disco night, and a crowd gathered to see Fain pour drinks at the Martini Bar.
I found it difficult at first to unmask indoors, as I hadn't done it in almost any public settings yet, except at restaurants once I'm sitting down, always with the mask ready for when a server or busser comes to the table. I changed my mind after realizing two things: One, I seemed to be the only masked adult, so everyone else onboard might think I was unvaccinated. But the main reason is that with a 99% vaccination rate, there probably isn't a safer place I can be. I certainly have no idea who near me is vaccinated when I'm in a supermarket, restaurant or airplane.
That doesn't make this cruise risk-free: even the best vaccines have a failure rate, and there have been breakthrough cases. Two asymptomatic passengers on the Celebrity Millennium who had presented proof of vaccination tested positive for Covid. But Celebrity contained it, and there was no spread among the fully vaccinated passengers.
Feeling 'normal' onboard
This feeling of normalcy is what "we're trying to accomplish," Fain said.
He continued: "The first cruise is very exciting as the first cruise. The second cruise is going to be interesting because it's the second cruise. By the third cruise, I'm hoping that everybody says 'yes, of course they're cruising. Why wouldn't they?' That's why we're pushing to get our ships moving as quickly as we can, because we're trying to get back to normal as quickly as possible."
As to the Florida law, it is of course entirely possible that more unvaccinated people will want to book and that the percentage will go lower. But Fain is assured that it won't fall below 95%.
"We seem to be navigating it very well," he said of the situation with Florida. "We try and work with all the regulatory bodies that are involved. And so far, I think this cruise is a good example of being successful with our ability to do so."
He added that Celebrity benefits from not carrying many children. But Fain wouldn't go as far as to say that the line is actively discouraging unvaccinated people from sailing, despite the additional costs and restrictions that the unvaccinated have.
"We want everybody to be safe, and we have put in place the protocols to ensure that," he said. "That is easier for people who are vaccinated. And I am a believer that the vaccination is good for the individual and good for our society. But we also will accommodate, in Florida, those who don't want to do that. But obviously have to put in place the protocols to protect others."
Masks are required on other ships
Royal Caribbean Group's next cruise, Royal Caribbean International's Freedom of the Seas' July 2 departure, will be a different story. As a result of likely having far more children onboard, and hence more unvaccinated people, there will be more mask mandates indoors and social distancing measures in place. But Fain said that on cruises with some of those protocols, guests are still having a good time.
On Celebrity cruises in Greece, for example, the Greek government requires mask wearing throughout the ship in most situations, even with 100% vaccination rates; "what we're finding is people still find that very attractive and successful," he said.
For me, I've certainly come to enjoy feeling pretty normal again. And I also have to admit that Silent Disco is a lot more fun than I thought it would be.