First U.S. Cruise in 15 Months Stopped by Florida Law From Asking Patrons' COVID Vaccine Status

The first United States cruise in 15 months was blocked from requiring proof of their passengers' vaccination status by a Florida law, the Associated Press reported.

In order to comply with the law and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 95 percent vaccination requirement, Celebrity Cruises is asking if guests would like to share their status.

Those who do not volunteer their proof of vaccine will be treated as unvaccinated and must wear face masks and be restricted to certain sitting areas, casinos and theaters.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Cruise Test COVID-19 Protocols
The Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas gets underway through the Government Cut shipping channel at PortMiami during the first U.S. trial cruise testing COVID-19 protocols on June 20, 2021. The cruise ship will get underway with employee volunteers on board. According to the cruise line, the purpose of the simulated voyage was to observe its “multilayered health and safety measures” following CDC requirements. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Industry officials hope the Celebrity Edge's voyage serves as a bookend for people for whom the gravity of the pandemic first hit home in the alarming reports last year of deadly outbreaks on crowded ships, with guests quarantined for weeks, vessels begging to dock and sickened passengers carried away on stretchers at ports.

"We are excited to be part of that," said Russ Schwartz, a Florida school principal who is honeymooning on the ship and is confident it will be smooth sailing. "Things have changed drastically. Back then we really didn't know much about the virus. Cruises at that point weren't prepared."

Celebrity Cruises, one of Royal Caribbean Cruises' brands, says at least 95 percent of those boarding the Celebrity Edge have been vaccinated against the coronavirus in line with health requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the ship will run at a reduced capacity.

It will be a luxurious voyage aboard a boat that was unveiled in December 2018 featuring a giant spa and multi-floor suites. The $1 billion vessel will be led by Capt. Kate McCue, who in 2015 became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship and has drawn a following of more than one million on TikTok and 250,000 on Instagram.

The stakes are high for cruise lines as they emerge from a CDC-imposed shutdown that lasted 15 months. During that period the three industry giants—Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean—have had to raise more than $40 billion in financing just to stay afloat without any revenue.

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

"The cruise lines are getting up off their knees after getting crippled by COVID-19," said Michael Winkleman, a maritime attorney. "There's just too much money at stake for the cruise lines not to get it right."

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

Beginning in 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 handling just the cruise response to COVID-19, including contact tracing for 11,000 passengers.

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

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

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

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

Celebrity Edge will sail before the injunction takes effect, so it is complying with the conditions.

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents about 90 percent of the global cruise capacity, said it appreciated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to back the industry and cruise lines are prioritizing health and safety. About 600,000 passengers have sailed in member ships outside the U.S. since last summer and incidence of the coronavirus has been low.

"The industry's protocols are working as intended," the association said in a statement. "The highly successful rollout of vaccines in the United States is a game-changer and facilitates safe travel."

About 44 percent of people nationwide are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, and new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are down sharply from their peak earlier this year.

Katherine Quirk-Schwartz, a Celebrity Edge passenger and registered nurse who's excited for the upcoming cruise and hopes to meet Capt. McCue, recalled how her hospital took in some of the first COVID-19 patients from cruise ships when they were finally allowed onshore in Florida after days of negotiation.

"It's almost like full circle. It's amazing to reflect on that," she said. "As more things change, more things open up, we will see more of the effects of the vaccine. People are getting back to living, people are getting back to sailing."

The Celebrity Edge Cruise Ship
The Celebrity Edge cruise ship is docked at Port Everglades, Tuesday, June 22, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Celebrity Edge is set to sail on Saturday from Fort Lauderdale. It will be the first cruise ship to leave a U.S. port with ticketed passengers since the onset of the pandemic, which halted sailing. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press