Royal Caribbean sails first ‘simulator’ cruise ship from Miami, as industry set to restart

A Royal Caribbean International cruise ship left from PortMiami with 600 passengers on board Sunday evening — part of a test sail trip as the cruise industry gears up for a grand restart later this summer.

The two-day trip on the Freedom of the Seas is a simulation with volunteer passengers, many of whom are Royal Caribbean employees, set to test whether cruise ships are safe. It’s a major milestone for the cruising industry after it came to a sudden halt last year during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not sailed with passengers for 15 months.

The ship, which left the South Florida port at 7 p.m. Sunday, will stop in CocoCay, the Bahamian island owned by the major cruise line.

“It’s been a long 15 months, and we’re really excited to get back to cruising again and get started. This is a great way for us to do that with a simulated sailing, to work with our employees and volunteers and guests to really try out all of our protocols to make sure that they’re working and ensure kind of a seamless transition to revenue voyages,” said Laura Hodges Bethge, senior vice president of Shared Services Operation at Royal Caribbean Group.

The test ship is departing in the throes of a rocky restart for the industry, just two days after a federal judge in Tampa issued a 124-page ruling — throwing out regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that dictated what safety rules cruise lines must comply with to set sail. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis challenged the rules in court, arguing the regulations were unfairly targeting the cruise ship industry and cruise companies should be allowed to operate without any federal oversight.

Federal judge throws out CDC’s cruise safety regulations, handing win to DeSantis

The CDC first published its conditional sail order in October, outlining four phases to get cruises up and running again amid the pandemic. Companies first had to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities on their ships and report weekly test results for crew members.

Final phases give companies two options to restart cruises: Ships that have 98% of their crew and 95% of their passengers vaccinated can restart without test cruises; others must conduct a two-day test cruise to ensure other COVID-19 protocols are preventing outbreaks.

In a legal win for DeSantis, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday said Friday some of the CDC’s rules, which included a requirement for cruise ships to have COVID-19 testing labs on board, were “unprecedented” and “authoritarian.” Other more basic requirements, like reporting all COVID-19 infections to the CDC, Merryday wrote in the ruling, are within the federal agency’s authority. The current sail order will now be in place for Florida cruises only until July 18, and the CDC has until July 2 to propose more limited regulations in court.

Florida’s U.S. senators want cruising to resume without government intervention

Hodges Bethge said Sunday the Miami-based cruise line is still evaluating the recent ruling and how it applies to the company. And while DeSantis has insisted cruise lines will not be exempted from a state law that prohibits companies from requiring proof of vaccination, Hodges Bethge noted that Royal Caribbean International is still moving forward with some of their planned protocols they’ve been developing over the past year. The safety rules being tested out include COVID test requirement for unvaccinated guests, mandatory health screenings, online check-ins and contact tracing through CCTV cameras.

“All of the different things that we’ve done technology-wise as well as with testing and safety, those are going to stay. Those are Royal Caribbean protocols, whether or not they’re required of us or not,” she said.

Royal Caribbean International has said it will require that passengers 16 years old and older be vaccinated on its ships leaving from all U.S. states, except for Florida, where the company will instead recommend that passengers be vaccinated. Hodges Bethge assured that Royal Caribbean employees have been trained on how to handle vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, but did not say exactly how the company will keep track of passengers who are unvaccinated.

“Given the protocols we have in place, with testing the unvaccinated, if you are vaccinated making sure or checking to make sure that is all in order. And then on board, in terms of, if you’re unvaccinated, wearing mask on board, all of those different things I think are all exceptionally important,” said Hodges Bethge. “We feel very good that we have some of the strongest kind of processes of anywhere you go in the world today.”

‘Still a great cruise vacation experience?’

Elisa Shen, the associate vice president of Onboard Revenue at Royal Caribbean, is one of the volunteers on the Freedom of the Seas. She said she signed up for the test sail because she wanted to experience first-hand what crew members have been asked to do and how cruise staff would handle a worst case scenario.

Although Florida cruises are banned from requiring proof of vaccination from passengers, recent test voyages have proven the importance of requiring vaccination to prevent deadly outbreaks that wrecked the industry last year. Earlier this month, two passengers tested positive five days into an eight-day cruise on the Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Millennium ship in the Caribbean, even though all adult passengers and crew showed proof of vaccination. Last week, eight crew members tested positive on Royal Caribbean International’s Odyssey of the Seas ship off Florida’s coast, less than two weeks since crew members on board were vaccinated. The company pushed back the ship’s tentative restart date by nearly a month in response.

The new protocols present a unique challenge for staff: ensuring future passengers can still have fun on board a ship. Shen said part of the simulator voyage is to test whether passengers can still have an enjoyable cruise trip, even with all the new safety challenges brought by the pandemic.

“One of the main goals of this simulation sailing is to say, what is this balance? We’re doing the right things from a public health perspective, but at the same time, is it still a great cruise vacation experience?” said Shen. “I do have to force myself into the vacation mindset if I’m going to truly test if this is OK.”

Miami Herald staff writer Taylor Dolven contributed to this report.

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