The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have given the green light for what will be the first cruise to set sail from the U.S. in more than 15 months. Celebrity Cruises plan to disembark on a seven-night cruise to the Caribbean, starting on June 26.
"CDC and the cruise industry agree that the industry has what it needs to move forward and no additional roadblocks exist for resuming sailing by mid-summer," CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey wrote in an email to reporters.
The cruise industry has been under a No Sail Order from the CDC since last March. At the time the order was given, COVID cases amongst cruise travelers accounted for 17% of the total cases in the U.S.
Now that the CDC has given their approval for the coming season's cruises, both the industry and industry experts have high hopes for a quick recovery.
According to industry expert Stewart Chiron of The Cruise Guy, there has been a "groundswell of demand" amongst would-be cruise-goer looking for any chance to get away.
"If they were able to have sailed in May or June of last year, there's people that would have," Chiron said. "There were loads of people that were so desperate to go, they didn't care where they went, or if they went anywhere. The itinerary was secondary to just getting away on a cruise and being out on the ocean, and doing something normal again was a primary factor."
Chiron also said that he expects cruise-goers to be willing to cooperate with cruise requirements. Currently, the most important factor in a person's ability to set sail is their vaccination status.
The CDC's approval isn't a blank check. In order to sail, 95% of a cruise's crew and passengers must be fully vaccinated prior to boarding.
As an alternative, the CDC is allowing the industry to send trial cruises at a lower capacity in order to test how effective their health and safety precautions are.
In either case, masks and distancing will be required, but vaccinated cruises will be allowed to follow more relaxed rules.
As Chiron expected, the good news is that passengers seem more than happy to get vaccinated. According to a Cruise Critic survey, 81% of respondents would take a cruise if vaccines were required.
Of course, the fact that cruises became such a major factor in the early waves of the pandemic isn't a fluke.
Cruises tend to feature group activities, shared mealtimes, close quarters, and international passengers, all of which can increase the likelihood that a person will be exposed to the virus. The massive population of these ships, often thousands of passengers plus the crew, also contributed to the devastation of those early super spreader events.
Some of the cruise lines themselves recognized the risk of flu outbreaks posed by a self-serve buffet, and many had already moved away from the practice. Still, the CDC will give cruises the option to allow vaccinated passengers to use the buffet, something which the industry certainly didn't expect.
"We were surprised by this because it seems that the cruise lines were moving more towards a served buffet and that kind of option," said Chris Gray Faust, the managing editor of Cruise Critic. She added, "But the buffet is not dead."
Once the ships reach port, passengers are still allowed to go on independent exploration, in accordance with CDC recommendations, but cruise lines are urged to stop unvaccinated passengers from doing so.
"It does seem that if you're vaccinated and you're on a ship where most of the people are vaccinated, your experience...will look more similar than we would have thought to before the pandemic," Gray Faust said.
Things might be more normal than expected, but there will still be signs of the pandemic, including new high-tech solutions like facial and body recognition for contact tracing.
"Those types of things have been really effective, at least what we've seen over in Europe and in Singapore," said Gray Faust.