Royal Caribbean's First "Trial Cruise" Departs Miami

Freedom of the Seas
Freedom of the Seas (Royal Caribbean file image)

Published Jun 21, 2021 1:40 AM by The Maritime Executive

In a long-awaited moment for the North American cruise industry, Royal Caribbean has begun its first "simulated" trial cruise, putting it on track to resume commercial operations at Florida's mega-cruise ports this summer. 

At about 1900 hours on Sunday, the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Freedom of the Seas departed PortMiami, carrying about 600 vaccinated employees on a trial cruise to test out the company's COVID-19 prevention protocols. Her destination is CocoCay, Royal Caribbean's private island destination.

All of the participants are volunteers, and a representative from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is on board to monitor the outcome. 

To meet requirements for the test, the ship must carry at least 10 percent of the maximum number of passengers that the line plans to carry when it returns to service, and all the passengers and crew have to agree to COVID-19 testing before and after. Post-cruise contact tracing will determine whether anyone became infected with the virus. 

By conducting a trial cruise and demonstrating its COVID-prevention measures, Freedom of the Seas will be able to resume operations without adhering to a demanding 95-percent vaccination standard for all passengers and crew. Unvaccinated guests will have to pay for their own COVID-19 testing in order to board, but they will not be prohibited from joining the ship. "We do strongly recommend all the guests be vaccinated for sure for those who are eligible, but we have measures in place to keep the cruises safe," said Patrik Dahlgren, SVP global marine operations for Royal Caribbean Group, speaking to CNN.

Meanwhile, the Royal Caribbean-owned brand Celebrity Cruises will be using the 95-percent-vaccination compliance option to re-launch its first commercial cruise on June 25.

A court ruling last week has put the strict requirements of the CDC's COVID cruise rules in question. On Friday, a U.S. District Court Judge found in favor of the State of Florida in a lawsuit targeting the CDC's conditional sailing order, the agency's emergency COVID-prevention restrictions on cruising. Citing the high cost to Florida's economy, Judge Steven Merryday granted an injunction and enjoined the CDC from enforcing the order in Florida. He also gave the CDC time to revise its rules to fit within the court’s understanding of the agency’s legal authority.

If the lawsuit is ultimately successful, the CDC's requirements - including the trial cruise - may become "a non-binding consideration, recommendation, or guideline," just like the guidelines that the agency issues for other industries.