Royal Caribbean’s Plan To Carry Unvaccinated Passengers Draws Mixed Reactions From Its Fan Base
Cruise lines have bent over backward to appease all sides in the Florida brawl over vaccine verifications. Sadly, it’s become abundantly clear that they just can’t please everybody.
Last Friday, Royal Caribbean announced that it will begin sailing in early July from Florida with ships where vaccinations will be recommended but not required. To many, this was a curious flip-flop. Less than two weeks earlier, the cruise line had updated its vaccine requirements page to say that all guests age 16 and older would need to complete all doses of their Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 days before sailing.
Since the announcement, Royal Caribbean’s Facebook page is drawing at least as many negative comments as positive ones. For every Judy (“No vax required? Great news!! So glad they believe in freedom of choice”), there’s a Pat ( “Not cruising with unvaccinated people. We are so disappointed in Royal Caribbean for its lack of caring about public health”) or a Bruce ( “When the ship gets infected, all ports will close, you can quarantine and head for home. Sounds like a lot of fun”).
“We continue to hear both a willingness – and a preference – from a majority of cruisers to sail with a vaccine requirement,” says Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor of Cruise Critic, a popular review site owned by Tripadvisor. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing a number of those cruisers say that they will only sail on ships that require a vaccine, but there is also a minority who will only sail on ships that do not. So it’s likely that booking decisions could be determined by which ships have requirements, and which don’t.”
Royal Caribbean’s announcement did not hint at such concerns. Travelers could have “peace of mind knowing that all crew members will be vaccinated against Covid-19,” said the cruise line. “Guests are strongly recommended to set sail fully vaccinated, if they are eligible. Those who are unvaccinated or unable to verify vaccination will be required to undergo testing and follow other protocols, which will be announced at a later date.”
Yet that last sentence floats on a raft of question marks. Exactly what protocols are TBD? Will unvaccinated cruisers have to wear an m-word? (Spoiler: Yes, almost certainly.) How will cruise lines enforce a different set of rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers?
And what about Covid protocols in ports of call? “It’s worth noting that while cruise lines might not have vaccine requirements, the destinations that they visit very well could,” says Faust. “It’s yet to be seen whether that could play a role in ships sailing from Florida with requirements made not by the line, but by the places they visit.”
Notably, there was no mention of the word “mask” in Royal Caribbean’s statement, but a two-pronged approach makes perfect sense from a health perspective, according to Dr. Vin Gupta, Affiliate Assistant Professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “That’s the type of friction that should exist for those not willing to show their vaccination status,” he says. “Cruise lines might say, ‘If you’re not going to show proof of vaccination, you have to get tested every other day with a rapid PCR test, and you have to mask whenever you’re in a public place on the cruise.’”
Royal Caribbean made it clear that it prefers passengers to be vaccinated. “As of today, 90% of all vacationers booking with Royal Caribbean are either vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated in time for their cruise,” said Michael Bayley, Royal Caribbean’s president and CEO, in the announcement. But his first three words are perhaps the most important. Without a mandate, that 90%-vaccinated number will drop, perhaps significantly, by the time ships begin to sail — an inevitability not lost on those who had booked cruises believing their fellow passengers would also be inoculated.
“We booked our cruises on the assumption that 95% would be vaccinated. Nothing else is acceptable,” said a California woman in Cruise Critic’s lively community forum, while an Atlanta man wrote, “My RC ship just cancelled and I’m glad since their policy changed. I will book onto [Celebrity] Edge, I suppose. And that is because of the vaccination policy. It’s the only way I would want to sail, FOR NOW. This is all so new and they don’t need to F this restart up!!!”
Like it or not, Royal Caribbean’s reversal over its vaccine mandate is tainted with the stench of politics. “Royal Caribbean is kowtowing to Governor DeSantis who is continuing his dangerous brinkmanship,” says Jim Walker, a maritime attorney whose Cruise Law News blog has accrued nearly 250,000 Facebook followers. “The line is disregarding what is clearly the safest protocol — a fully vaccinated ship — to resume sailing during a deadly pandemic.”
Judging from comments littering Royal Caribbean’s Facebook page, a good number of the cruise line’s fans agree with Sharon (“I was so excited until you bowed to DeSantis”) and Janet (“It is all so stupid and political!!!”).
Mediation between federal and state stakeholders failed to come up with a way through an impasse between CDC restrictions on cruise ships and a new Florida law prohibiting businesses from checking individuals’ vaccination status. The governor and three major cruise operators discussed the possibility of an exemption for cruise lines but failed to see it through.
So tomorrow in Tampa, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday will begin hearing arguments from the DeSantis administration on its request for an injunction against the CDC’s guidelines. The U.S. Department of Justice attorneys will argue that the CDC has laid out a clear path for cruise lines to resume cruising by mid-summer.
“I’m not sure what will happen first,” says Walker. “Judge Merryday ruling against the state of Florida and upholding the right of the CDC to enter Conditional Sailing Orders? Or a Covid outbreak on a cruise ship, which returns to a port in Florida with its tail between its legs?”