First big U.S. cruise since 2020: Life on the Edge feels ... normal

ABOARD THE CELEBRITY Edge -- The Celebrity Edge was the first large cruise ship to resume passenger travels from the U.S. after the pandemic declaration in March 2020.Just a day after that sailing, Richard Fain (CEO of Royal Caribbean Group) said that what felt like an "endless fifteen months" was now "just a blip."Similar feelings were expressed by Kate McCue, Celebrity Edge captain. The ship arrived at Costa Maya, Mexico on the third day. It had been sailing so smooth and looked so normal, that she was taken by surprise.She said, "I assumed everything would feel fresh. It doesn't." It feels like the past 15 months have gone by quickly or it was a dream. It's like I just returned to work, and we are welcoming our guests as we have always done."What is the difference between what is the same and what is different?This feeling is largely due to the 99% vaccination rate for this seven-day Western Caribbean departure departing from Port Everglades. Nearly all passengers are free from masks and social distancing is not required. People can sit anywhere they like in the theater, but ushers encourage them spread out. Restaurant tables aren't placed six feet apart. People can also sit at bars, just as they used to before the pandemic. Silent Disco night was a huge success.Martini Bar was a popular spot. Photo credit: Johanna Jainchill, TW photoHowever, not everything is the same as it used to be. You can't eat at the buffet by yourself. It is confusing to be governed by port regulations about whether you can roam freely or must take guided "bubble" tours. The ship feels empty at 40% occupancy. Celebrity stated that the crew is currently wearing masks. However, they will soon be able remove them.McCue stated that people are experiencing the ship and ports. It feels so natural and normal it's almost bizarre.This sailing shows that ships with highly vaccinated crews can provide a normal cruise experience, even after seemingly endless negotiations with the CDC to allow cruising from U.S. ports to resume.McCue stated that if it had happened earlier, McCue wouldn't have the same level of confidence as now.On this week's Celebrity Edge sailing, masks were rare. 99% of those aboard had been vaccinated. Photo credit: Port EvergladesFain pointed out that the CDC has changed its attitude towards the cruise industry. Not only is the U.S. now half vaccinated but the cruise sector also has better contact tracing capabilities and testing capabilities than any other land-based industry.He said that what was initially considered a disadvantage, the fact that cruise ships are self-contained, has become an "obvious" benefit.Fain stated that recent cases from the Celebrity Millennium in St. Maarten were a good example. Routine testing revealed that two asymptomatic individuals who presented proof of vaccination were positive."We identified them. We identified their closest contacts. Fain stated that we tested everyone and found the problem. We also solved it without exposing anyone else." We achieved our goal of preventing these things from happening, and, if they do occur, to prevent an isolated incident becoming an epidemic. If these two people were in their home, they would have continued to infect people randomly.Fain stated, "The truth is that there will be cases." "The key question is: Can we manage them?"Two unvaccinated minors were found to have tested positive on the sister brand Royal Caribbean International's Adventure of the Seas. However, because the ship was highly vaccinated with protocols to trace and isolate contact, no community was established.Fain pointed out for years that ships operating in foreign parts of the globe have done so without having vaccinated passengers. Royal Caribbean Group's European lines, Tui Cruises, and Hapag-Lloyd have been in operation since the second half of 2020. Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas sails from Singapore since December.CLIA reports that cruise ships have carried over 600,000 passengers since July 2020. They also had a lower incidence rate than any other setting. Protocols were used to prevent outbreaks.Cafe al Bacio is a relaxing place for passengers. Photo credit: Johanna Jainchill photoTo make a cruise feel normal, it is necessary to have a large number of passengers who are well vaccinated. For cruises that do not require 95% or more vaccines, you will need to wear masks and social distancing. You can't offer Silent Disco activities because strangers could be close by.Fain stated that celebrities also have the advantage of not having many children who aren't yet vaccinated. The first sailing from the U.S. featured 20 people. Royal Caribbean Group's second ship, Freedom of the Seas, will not meet the 95% vaccination threshold but Fain believes it will be successful. Fain cites the high satisfaction rates of the company's sailings throughout the pandemic and the additional protocols.He said, "What we're seeing is that people still find [those ships] very attractive and successful."