Today’s departure of Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas for a simulated voyage marks an important milestone. For the first time since cruising was suspended back in March 2020, a major cruise ship will depart with passengers from a U.S. port. This cruise signals a return to sailing is finally on the horizon.
According to the schedule announced by Royal Caribbean International President Michael Bayley, Freedom of the Seas will sail a short test trip that departs Miami and returns June 22. The ship is slated to offer its first cruise with paid passengers on July 2. If all goes to plan, that will be the first Royal Caribbean cruise to sail with from the United States in more than 15 months.
Celebrity Cruises has the first official U.S. cruise of any line, departing Port Everglades on June 26.
Why Simulated Voyages Are Required
For more than a year cruise lines have worked to return to sailing in a process that’s been slow, cumbersome, and constantly evolving.
Currently there are two pathways to return. Ships can either sail with the vast majority of passengers (95%+) vaccinated and face fewer restrictions, or they can sail with a mix of both vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers. In that case, a simulated voyage with volunteer passengers is required by the CDC before it will give final approval to sail.
These simulated voyages — also known as test cruises — are designed to implement all the changes currently required by health officials. The cruises test new protocols like distancing and check-in procedures, as well as shore excursions, restaurant service, and operating event venues on the ship. In other words, it’s a chance to practice new protocols before paying passengers are allowed to sail.
There are a number of restrictions and rules in place for the cruises, including the number of passengers onboard, length of the test voyage, who is eligible to be a volunteer, and more.
(While Royal Caribbean put out a call for volunteers that resulted in more than 250,000 interested sign-ups, we have yet to see exactly who was selected for this first test cruise. We reached out to the company and have not received an answer. A reporter for the Miami Herald mentioned that one volunteer passenger she interviewed was a Royal Caribbean employee.)
I asked Meisel (who is a RC employee) what he would tell folks who are scared about getting on cruises, considering.. well, COVID infections. He said: “Don’t hesitate… do it immediately.”
— Bianca Padró Ocasio (@BiancaJoanie) June 20, 2021
Only after a successful voyage will the ship be given the green light by the CDC to sail with paid passengers. For each subsequent ship the cruise line wants to sail without meeting the 95% vaccine threshold, it must also sail a test cruise before being approved to return.
If you think it sounds easier to simply sail with vaccinated passengers, you’re not alone. For many cruise lines — including Royal Caribbean — they are electing to start back with vaccinated trips.
There are two issues, however.
First, Florida law says that businesses can’t require proof of vaccination from customers. So if a ship wants to sail from Florida, it can encourage the shot, but not require it. Therefore, unless passengers volunteer their status to the cruise line, it’s difficult to know if ships will meet the vaccine threshold. Second, sailing vaccinated cruises means those ineligible for shots — such as children — have a harder time setting sail.
Due to these hurdles, a number of cruise lines are electing to sail at least some ships with a mix of passengers. That means a simulated test cruise is required.
But even with the excitement of seeing the first test voyage depart, it’s possible that a change is coming that could mean the end of these simulated voyages.
Does a Florida Court Battle Mean Test Cruises Are Short-Lived?
The simulated voyage requirement comes from the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order (CSO). This order is a myriad of rules and steps that cruise lines must undertake to get back to sailing.
The CSO was first put in place in late October 2020 — nearly eight months ago. Until recently the health agency was slow in releasing technical instructions that cruise lines needed in order to follow the CDC’s rules. Since then, the rules surrounding what can and can’t happen has been modified several times. For example, originally there were few exceptions to rules surrounding distancing and masking, even on a vaccinated cruise.
The result is that it’s taken months for ships to get back to the point of sailing again, and even then, it’s a limited number of ships for the time being.
That could change. Recently the state of Florida filed suit against the CDC, alleging the agency overstepped its authority in imposing the Conditional Sailing Order. Late last week, a federal judge agreed, granting an injunction in Florida against the order.
This injunction is put in place starting July 18. At that time, the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order becomes a “non-binding” recommendation — not a requirement. There are a number of steps between now and then, including that the CDC can offer a modified plan for review by July 2. So nothing is set in stone.
Even so, it’s possible that by mid-July the order that imposes the test cruise requirement — and other protocols cruise lines must follow — could be removed for ships sailing from Florida.
Expect New Protocols Either Way
To be sure, as of now it’s not clear exactly what will happen regarding these rules in the weeks ahead. No matter what does occur, cruise lines have a strong interest in keeping passengers healthy. Expect new rules and protocols (such as testing unvaccinated passengers) to stick around. After two recent cases made national headlines, it’s obvious that the industry as a whole is under considerable media scrutiny when it comes to COVID.
In fact, even before the CDC issued its Conditional Sailing Order, the Healthy Sail Panel — a joint project between Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line featuring a team of health experts — came up with 74 recommendations on how to sail safely.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) also has industry requirements in place that its members are expected to follow. Meanwhile, with the widespread availability of vaccines in the United States and the lower number of cases, the risks do appear to be shrinking for the time being.
And even on cruises where vaccines aren’t required, Royal Caribbean says “all guests are strongly recommended to be fully vaccinated.” It also plans to charge passengers who don’t show proof of the shot $136 for testing, giving a financial incentive to sail only after taking the vaccine.
One Thing Clear: Cruising Will Change For Now
As Freedom of the Seas departs for its simulated voyage and the return of cruising gets closer, it’s obvious the requirements to sail will continue to evolve. For the time being many lines are opting to sail with nearly all passengers vaccinated. And while a number of ships — especially those cruising from Florida — are undertaking simulated voyages, it’s not clear if that step will still be required in a few weeks.
Even so, don’t expect the experience on the ship to go back to normal if sailing with a mix of passengers. Rules around masks, encouragement of vaccines, distancing, and protocols implemented by foreign ports are likely to be around even if not forced by the CDC.