A Celebrity Cruises ship was poised to leave the coast of Florida on Saturday, becoming the first revenue-earning cruise to depart from the U.S. after a pandemic-induced hiatus.

Guests on Celebrity Edge, operated under the broader Royal Caribbean Group umbrella, flashed their vaccinations cards as they filed through lines. The company says 99% of guests are vaccinated, and the ship will sail at about 40% of its normal capacity of about 2,900. Health surveys were filled out digitally before boarding.

After a pause of more than 15 months, the departure marks the industry’s biggest step yet in returning to a business hit hard since the start of the outbreak. As guests check in at designated times at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to limit crowds, there’s a sense of optimism on what this journey brings to the future of cruises.

“I feel like it’s a step toward some normality, but it’s a just a test so we’ll see how it goes,” said Brandon Prunty, a 26-year-old who was waiting to board with his girlfriend amid scattered showers. “I’m trying to keep a positive outlook. If they have certain restrictions, that’s the way it goes. I’m just looking for a good vacation.”

The cruise industry has come a long way since March 2020, when a series of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships led to deaths at sea and sent governments into panic about whether the vessels could even let passengers disembark. In the ensuing period, the main three companies — owners of vast and capital intensive fleets — have raised more than $40 billion in new financing to muddle through without customers.

The shutdown reverberated across a series of other professions that feed off the floating resorts, which all told account for around 750,000 American jobs, according to Royal Caribbean.

‘Zero revenue’

The company pulled out all the stops for the first trip. The ship’s captain was Kate McCue, the first American woman cruise captain and one of the industry’s biggest social-media stars. The event was filled with celebratory music and speeches from local politicians, and Royal Caribbean Group Chief Executive Richard Fain — who is also going along for the trip — even sang a slightly off-key chorus of Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”

“We’ve gone now for 15 months with zero revenue,” Fain said. “But the good news is we’re back.”

Even today, some uncertainty still hangs over the industry as new waves of COVID-19 outbreaks prompt lockdowns and other restrictions in other parts of the world. Cruise companies expect Saturday’s voyage will be the start of a gradual resumption to normal operations that could take until well into 2022.

Passengers prepare to board the Celebrity Edge cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI
Passengers prepare to board the Celebrity Edge cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has outlined a path back to the ocean that it considers safe, in which companies can either conduct “simulated” voyages to prove their virus safety or ensure 95% of passengers and crew are vaccinated. Celebrity Edge was approved under the latter.

The industry was somewhat entangled in Florida’s politics too. Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state sued the CDC this year to prevent it from enforcing the restrictions on the industry, a massive source of jobs in the Sunshine State.

DeSantis also pushed to approve legislation that banned so-called vaccine passports, in which vaccination proof is required as a condition of service — which initially seemed to clash with the CDC path to resumption that called for a 95% vaccination rate on board. But the cruise companies appear to have found a way around that, as shown by the check-in process on Celebrity Edge.

“There is nothing in the vaccine passport ban that prevents a company from asking about vaccination status,” said DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw. “The law would only be violated in the event that a company denied service or entry to an individual who could not or would not show proof of immunization.”

‘No apprehensions’

James and Cynthia Mitchell of Hope, Kansas, were just glad to be returning to the sea. The retiree couple in their mid 50s wore matching black t-shirts that read “Straight Outta Vaccination.” They consider themselves avid cruisers and had nine trips canceled during the pandemic. They planned to be on a cruise again next week, as soon as they return on Celebrity Edge.

“We have no apprehensions at all,” James said. “There’s a lot of smart people that will make sure that everything works great. We just have to listen and do as they say, but I don’t think it’s going to take away from any of the fun and good times.”

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