Karen Matzel wanted to be first.
She was one of the last passengers to disembark the Celebrity Edge cruise ship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 15, 2020, as COVID-19 shut down the industry, and she wanted to be the first to step back on board during its restart cruise last month. As she wound her way through the switchbacks of the gangway, she could hear the cheers growing louder. When Matzel rounded the final turn and saw crew members on both sides of the ship’s entryway, she felt tears coming.
“When I could hear them clapping, I could feel a frog in my throat,” Matzel said, noting she was among the first 10 passengers on board. “I couldn’t have had a better welcome home.”
Aboard cruise ships that relaunched passenger operations from Florida ports this summer, happy celebrations ushered in a new — and uncertain — beginning for the beleaguered industry.
The festivities were 15 months in the making since companies halted their U.S. operations in March 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks on ships killed dozens of passengers and crew. Countries closed their ports to cruise ships suffering outbreaks, delaying critical medical evacuations. Crew members spent months trapped on ships unpaid and without reliable information about when and how they would get home.
More than 13 million passengers boarded cruise ships in the U.S. in 2019, and 8.3 million of them chose cruises in Florida, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s lobbying group. Canceled cruises in the U.S., the industry’s most lucrative market, ground much of the $55.5 billion U.S. cruise economy to a halt. Meanwhile the 60,000 South Floridians who work directly and indirectly for the industry saw their hours cut or their jobs disappear altogether and the $7 billion passenger cruise economy associated with PortMiami was largely paralyzed.
Companies have worked to build back consumer trust with new COVID-19 protocols, promising a safer environment at sea than on land.
The first restart cruise for Royal Caribbean Group inspired CEO Richard Fain last month to break into song during a press conference on the Port Everglades pier: “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.”
So far, four cruise ships have restarted from Florida ports, carrying passengers on three- to seven-night cruises to the Caribbean, and at least 10 more have plans to restart from Florida before summer’s end. Avid cruisers and first-timers alike say they’re confident companies can avoid the deadly outbreaks of last year and are thrilled to be back on vacation — a respite from the ongoing pandemic.
But persistent COVID-19 cases on ships and two unresolved legal battles in Florida surrounding safety regulations mean it’s far from smooth sailing ahead.
GLAD TO BE BACK
Matzel isn’t alone in her enthusiasm for pandemic cruising. More than a dozen passengers who have boarded cruises in Florida this summer interviewed by the Herald gave the experience two big thumbs up. Despite new rules, including pre-boarding COVID-19 tests and vaccine requirements, passengers say it’s largely cruise business as usual.
“It felt like a regular cruise, surprisingly so,” said Julie Reed, 51, from Orlando, who went on the Carnival Horizon ship from Miami with her husband and daughter. “I thought there would be more protocols in place, but there wasn’t any distancing. You could sit in all the seats at the theater, the lounges. The nightclub was open.”
First-time cruisers Isabella Mathis, 24, and Avery Mathis, 27, from Georgia, took a four-night cruise on Freedom of the Seas from Miami for a family vacation to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday.
“It’s been two years since we all vacationed,” said Avery. “We were ready to get out.”
The ship had fewer passengers than they expected, and enough on board activities — restaurants, pools, shows — to keep them busy. Their favorite part was getting off the ship at Royal Caribbean Group’s private island in The Bahamas, CocoCay.
“We did the floating cabana with the slide out over the water,” said Isabella. “It was pretty.”
CocoCay was a favorite for Betsy Lanners, 63, and Jack Lanners, 69, from Naples, who were also on the Fourth of July Freedom of the Seas cruise with their adult son. The family enjoyed it so much, they were already looking for their next cruise as they pulled out of the PortMiami terminal.
“Everyone was so nice,” said Betsy. “The only difference was the masks; other than that it was just like any other cruise.”
Longshoreman Clarence Allen Jr., 54, is glad to have the passengers back. When the cruise industry shut down last year, Allen’s regular work as a porter, loading and unloading passenger luggage from cruise ships, dried up, and he had to switch to working heavy machinery on the cargo side of the port.
“The portering, the people that you meet and working with my coworkers — that’s something I miss ... when they stopped,” he said. “When I drive the machine I’m in the machine by myself all day. But when you do portering, you work with your coworkers all day, you get to talk with the guys, have a lot of camaraderie.”
A cruise ship usually needs about 50 to 60 porters, Allen said, but only around 30 are working because there are fewer passengers allowed on the ships. Still, Allen is grateful more longshoremen are back to work and looking forward to the industry’s full comeback.
“I check the passengers on board and a lot of them when they talk they are just so happy to be back sailing,” he said.
COVID-19 PERSISTS ON SHIPS
Not everyone’s experiences have been seamless.
Companies are navigating a difficult task for their Florida cruises: make sure as many people as possible on board have been vaccinated against COVID-19 without violating a recently passed Florida law that fines companies $5,000 each time they require a passenger show proof of vaccination.
Florida is an outlier. Companies are allowed to require passengers show proof of vaccination in other states like Texas and Washington where cruises have already restarted.
“That is a real headache for the [cruise] industry,” said Rockford Weitz, director of the Fletcher School Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University, referring to the Florida law. “The rest of the world is opening up and deferring to the industry to regulate itself in a way it thinks it can have the safest and most fun experience for people in a confined area that a cruise ship is. That means requiring people be vaccinated and frequent testing.”
Each cruise company has its own vaccine policy for Florida and they are changing constantly, causing confusion for both passengers and employees. Carnival Cruise Line requires that all passengers be vaccinated, but offers pre-approved exemptions. Celebrity Cruises requires all passengers 16 years old and older be vaccinated. Though Royal Caribbean International is owned by the same parent company as Celebrity Cruises, its policy differs: It recommends passengers be vaccinated, but doesn’t require it.
All verify vaccination status through a patchwork of pre-cruise phone calls to passengers and voluntary reviews of vaccine cards during check-in, passengers said. Unvaccinated passengers are stuck with fees for tests during embarkation and debarkation, and sometimes mid-cruise, and restrictions on ship and shore activities. Soon, unvaccinated passengers on Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International ships will have to purchase travel insurance for COVID-19.
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.”©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.