FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The first cruise ship to leave a U.S. port since the coronavirus pandemic brought the industry to a 15-month standstill sailed away on Saturday with nearly all vaccinated passengers on board.
Celebrity Edge departed Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 6 p.m. with the number of passengers limited to about 40% capacity, and with nearly all 1,100 passengers vaccinated against COVID-19. Celebrity Cruises, one of Royal Caribbean Cruise's brands, says 99% of the passengers are vaccinated, well over the 95% requirement imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A giant greeting was projected on a wall of one of the port buildings: "Someday is here. Welcome back."
Passengers arrived with matching T-shirts that read phrases such as “straight outta vaccination” and “vaccinated and ready to cruise."
“Words can’t describe how excited we are to be a part of this historic sailing today,” said Elizabeth Rosner, 28, who moved from Michigan to Orlando, Florida, in December 2019 with her fiancé just to be close to the cruise industry’s hub.
To comply with both the CDC’s requirement and a new Florida law banning businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, Celebrity Cruises asked guests if they would like to share their vaccination status. Those who did not show or say they are vaccinated face additional restrictions.
Saturday’s sailing kicks off the cruise lines’ return to business with Carnival vessels already scheduled to depart from other ports next month.
“This is an emotional day for me. When I stepped on board the ship, I was proud. It’s a beautiful ship,” said Royal Caribbean Cruises’ CEO Richard Fain, after expressing condolences to the victims of the Surfside building collapse, less than 15 miles (about 24 kilometers) south of the port.
Celebrity Cruises had unveiled the $1 billion boat in December 2018 — betting on luxury cruising, offering a giant spa and multifloor suites. The seven-night cruise will sail for three days in the Western Caribbean waters before making stops in Costa Maya, Cozumel and Nassau.
The ship is led by Capt. Kate McCue, the first American woman to captain a cruise ship, who has more than 1 million followers on TikTok.
“You can truly feel the palpable sense of excitement and energy amongst the group as we prepare for our welcoming of our first guests,” McCue said. “I've never honestly seen a group so excited to get back to work.”
Industry officials are hoping all goes smooth to move past a chapter last year of deadly outbreaks on cruise ships that prompted ships to be rejected at ports and passengers to be forced into quarantine. Some passengers died of COVID-19 at sea while others fell so ill they had to be carried out of the vessels on stretchers.
The CDC extended no-sail orders repeatedly last year as the pandemic raged, and came up with strict requirements for the industry that have already been contested in court by the state of Florida. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says the industry generates billions for the state's economy.
On Saturday, officials at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale said only that port lost more than $30 million in revenue in fiscal year 2020 from the cruise shutdown.
During that hiatus, Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, the three largest cruise companies, have had to raise more than $40 billion in financing just to stay afloat. 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 pandemic forced Kurt and Carol Budde to cancel their beach celebration wedding aboard the world's largest ship, Symphony of the Seas, in March 2020. COVID-19 halted cruising six days before they were scheduled to tie the knot in St. Maarten. Kurt Budde's part-time gig as a travel agent also dried up.
“It's a honeymoon make-up cruise,” said Kurt Budde, sporting matching shirts with the phrase “On Cruise Control."
“We are living our best lives post COVID today," he said.