Cruise ship to leave US for first time in over a year as industry seeks return

MIAMI – The first cruise ship to pick up passengers at a U.S. port in 15 months is expected to depart from South Florida’s industry hub on Saturday in a symbolic step towards normalcy that will be closely watched by experts in the U.S. health as vaccines curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Industry officials hope the Celebrity Edge’s voyage serves as a bookend for those first struck by pandemic severity in last year’s alarming reports of deadly epidemics on ships crowded, with guests quarantined for weeks, ships begging to dock and sick passengers carried on stretchers to ports.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of this,” said Russ Schwartz, a Florida school principal who is on his honeymoon on the ship and is confident the navigation will be smooth. “Things have changed dramatically. At the time, we really didn’t know much about the virus. The cruises at that time were unprepared.”

Celebrity Cruises, one of the brands of Royal Caribbean Cruises, claims that at least 95% of those boarding the Celebrity Edge have been vaccinated against the coronavirus in accordance with the health requirements of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the ship will operate at reduced speed. capacity.

It will be a luxurious trip aboard a boat that was unveiled in December 2018 with a giant spa and multi-story suites. The billion dollar ship will be managed by Captain Kate McCue, who in 2015 became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship and has attracted over a million TikTok subscribers and 250,000 on Instagram.

The stakes are high for cruise passengers coming out of a closure imposed by the CDC that lasted 15 months. During that time, the industry’s three giants – Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean – had to raise over $ 40 billion in funding just to stay afloat with no income whatsoever.

Collectively, they lost $ 20 billion last year and an additional $ 4.5 billion in the first quarter of 2021, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents.

“Cruise passengers are on their knees after being crippled by COVID-19,” said Michael Winkleman, a maritime lawyer. “There is just too much money at stake for the cruise lines not to do it right.”

To comply with both the CDC’s 95% vaccination requirement and a new Florida law that prohibits companies from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, Celebrity Cruises simply asks customers if they wish to share their status, said spokeswoman Susan Lomax.

Those who do not voluntarily present proof of vaccination will be treated as unvaccinated and will be subject to additional protocols such as wearing face masks and restricting designated seating areas in common areas such as dining rooms, casinos and theaters.

Last year, the CDC blasted the cruise industry for keeping bars, gyms and self-service buffets open and continuing to allow crew members to congregate even as the pandemic raged. .

As of March 2020, data showed 3,689 confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 on cruise ships in U.S. waters, and at least 41 deaths. The CDC says it spent 38,000 person-hours just managing the cruise’s response to COVID-19, including contact tracing for 11,000 passengers.

Medical evacuation and logistics efforts for passengers disembarking from ships such as the Zaandam in Fort Lauderdale and the Grand Princess in Oakland, Calif., Also diverted resources from local agencies trying to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Dozens of passengers have since filed lawsuits claiming companies failed to protect and warn them of the virus, especially after an outbreak on Carnival’s Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan with more than 700 cases confirmed and nine deaths.

The extended shutdown has also been challenged in court. In April, Florida sued the federal government to demand that cruise ships be allowed to begin sailing, arguing that the ban disproportionately harms the state where the industry generates billions each year for the economy. .

Last week, a judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the CDC from enforcing sailing conditions, which the state says effectively blocks most cruises.

Celebrity Edge will sail before the injunction takes effect, so it meets the conditions.

The Cruise Lines International Association, which accounts for about 90% of global cruise capacity, said it appreciates Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ efforts to support the industry and for cruise lines to prioritize health and to safety. About 600,000 passengers have sailed on member ships outside the United States since last summer and the incidence of the coronavirus has been low.

“Industry protocols are working as intended,” the association said in a statement. “The very successful deployment of vaccines in the United States is a game-changer and makes it easier to travel safely. “

About 44% of people nationwide are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, and new cases of COVID-19 in the United States are down sharply from their peak at the start of the year.

Katherine Quirk-Schwartz, a Celebrity Edge passenger and RN who is excited about the upcoming cruise and hopes to meet Captain McCue, recalled how her hospital welcomed some of the cruise ships’ first COVID-19 patients when they eventually allowed to disembark ashore. Florida after days of negotiation.

“It’s almost like a full circle. It’s amazing to think about that,” she said. “As things change, as things open up, we will see more effects of the vaccine. People come back to life, people start to navigate again.”

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