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Cruise industry charts summer comeback, but it's far from smooth sailing

Taylor Dolven, Miami Herald on

Published in Business News

The rules haven’t always gone according to plan.

During the boarding process for a recent four-night cruise from Miami on Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas ship, the company apparently mislabeled two unvaccinated passengers as vaccinated, giving them purple wristbands that guaranteed free rein on the ship and allowed them to bypass a COVID-19 test at the terminal required for those who aren’t inoculated. On the second day of the cruise, when the company realized the mix-up, it tested both passengers, and one was positive for COVID-19. The company booted both passengers from the ship in Nassau, The Bahamas, and put them on a private jet home to the U.S.

Laura Angelo, 57, the passenger who tested positive, said she doesn’t have COVID-19. Two PCR test results in the days following her return home reviewed by the Herald show negative results.

“That’s baffling to me,” she said. “They destroyed my vacation.”

The snafu wasn’t the first. In a recent court filing, the CDC’s maritime unit director Aimee Treffiletti said agency inspectors flagged similar mistakes during Freedom of the Seas’ test cruise with volunteer passengers in late June, including failure to keep passengers with positive test results distanced from passengers cleared for embarkation. Treffiletti also cited cruise companies mislabeling positive COVID-19 test results as negative and repeatedly testing to negate reporting a positive test result.

Royal Caribbean Group spokesperson Jonathon Fishman said the CDC OK’d the company’s plans to restart cruises with paying passengers after the test cruise. He did not respond to requests for comment about the mix-up in vaccination status involving Angelo.

Of the 61 ocean cruise ships operating or planning to sail in U.S. waters as of this week, 16 had reported COVID-19 cases on board during the previous seven days, according to CDC data. Of the 16 ships with recent infections, six are operating with passengers; the rest are carrying only crew or operating test cruises with volunteers.

Cruise companies say their new virus protocols, which include equipping their medical centers with testing capabilities and designating areas to isolate those infected, are effective.

“We are confident our protocols and procedures worked precisely as they were intended to work,” said Fishman in an email.

“There of course have been a few hiccups, but nothing so unusual that we couldn’t adjust and adapt, and the guest experience on board has been what we wanted to be able to offer,” Carnival Cruise Line spokesperson Chris Chiames said in an email.

In June, the CDC lowered its travel warning for cruises from Level 4, its highest, to Level 3, for unvaccinated people. Level 3 means there is a high level of COVID-19.

Treffiletti, the head of the CDC’s maritime unit, said the new protocols are in line with CDC regulations and make cruising as safe as possible. She urged every American 12 years and older to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

“Cruising is not a zero-risk activity,” Treffiletti said in an email. “...With the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and as more travelers become fully vaccinated, it’s unlikely that a ship will need to return to port due to a COVID-19 outbreak.”

Caribbean countries are balancing efforts to keep residents safe from COVID-19 and reopening their economies to tourism. Eleven of 36 Caribbean countries and territories reported cruise tourism expenditures of $100 million or more during the 2017-2018 cruise season, according to a survey by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

In June, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Albert Bryan Jr., urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to exempt cruise companies from the state law that bars them from requiring proof of vaccination from passengers, arguing that unvaccinated passengers arriving in Caribbean ports put the region at risk.

COURT BATTLES LOOM

 

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is taking a different tack. Instead of creating a workaround to the Florida law, the company is suing the state’s attorney general, asking a federal judge in Miami to allow the company to require that all passengers show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. The company plans to restart its first cruise from Florida on Aug. 15 and operate 15 ships from the state over the course of the fall and winter.

In court filings, Norwegian said its ability to require that passengers provide proof of vaccination is “a matter of life and death.” Its CEO Frank Del Rio has repeatedly threatened to remove its ships from Florida if the law remains in place.

Meanwhile, DeSantis successfully blocked the CDC from being able to enforce its COVID-19 cruise regulations for ships leaving from Florida ports.

The governor sued the CDC in April, arguing that its regulations were preventing cruise companies from operating freely and keeping tax dollars associated with cruise spending away from the state’s coffers. The judge agreed, calling CDC’s assumed authority to shut down a cruise ship due to a COVID-19 case “breathtaking, unprecedented, and acutely and singularly authoritarian.”

On July 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with DeSantis, lifting the agency’s COVID-19 rules for Florida cruises that require ships to have testing kits on board and evacuation agreements in place with U.S ports, among other things. All ships operating from Florida ports are still following the regulations, according to the CDC.

CRUISING COMEBACK INTO FALL

As the court battles play out, paying passengers continue to board cruise ships every few days in U.S. ports. In addition to the four cruise ships operating already from Florida, more are back in business in Galveston, Texas, and Seattle, Washington.

Though fewer people are booking cruises now than before COVID-19, cruise companies say demand is increasing each quarter. Travel agent Kari Halpern, owner of Sunny Destinations agency in Brooklyn, New York, said she hopes that by November cruising will be back “full throttle.” She estimated prices are 30% higher than before the pandemic. A recent online search shows a four-night cruise from Miami on Freedom of the Seas for mid-September starts at $326 per person, a six-night cruise from Miami on Carnival Horizon for the same time frame starts at $479 per person.

“This is long overdue, there is a pent-up demand for travel,” she said. “After this break, I think they’ll come back strong and when the capacity comes back, larger ships will be full and prices will remain high and clients will keep coming back like they did pre-COVID.”

As of mid-July, the CDC has approved 18 ocean cruise ships for restart, meaning they meet the agency’s threshold of 95% of crew members and passengers vaccinated or have successfully conducted test cruises. Four of those are already operating from Florida — Celebrity Edge and Celebrity Equinox from Port Everglades and Carnival Horizon and Freedom of the Seas from PortMiami — and five more have plans to start this summer — Norwegian Gem, MSC Meraviglia and Carnival Sunrise from PortMiami and Carnival Mardi Gras and Carnival Magic from Port Canaveral.

Others with plans to restart in Florida this summer are still awaiting CDC approval. Virgin Voyages has pushed back its first ship’s debut at PortMiami until Oct. 6.

Halpern said she is getting an influx of bookings for cruises this winter and next summer.

“It was a difficult time,” she said. “Now with everything going back slowly, I have people calling me every day.”

On board the Celebrity Edge cruise ship — the first to restart U.S. operations from Port Everglades on June 26 — Matzel was having such a good time that she and her husband decided to stay on board for a second cruise, agreeing to a COVID-19 test in between. During their second go-round, the couple celebrated their status as the ship’s top cruisers, meaning they had more points in Celebrity Cruises’ loyalty program than anyone else on board.

“We are having such a good time, my husband said, ‘Hey Kar, why don’t we just stay another week?’ ” she said. “I’m elated. It’s been so wonderful. ... I’m already looking for the next cruise I can get on.”

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