FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The first cruise ship to leave a U.S. port since the coronavirus pandemic brought the industry to a 15-month standstill sailed away Saturday with nearly all its passengers vaccinated.
Celebrity Edge departed Fort Lauderdale at 6 p.m., limited to about 40% capacity. Celebrity Cruises, one of Royal Caribbean Cruise's brands, says 99% of the 1,100 passengers are vaccinated, well above the 95% requirement imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A giant greeting was projected on a wall of one of the port buildings: "Someday is here. Welcome back."
Passengers arrived wearing T-shirts with phrases such as "straight outta vaccination" and "vaccinated and ready to cruise."
"Words can't describe how excited we are to be a part of this historic sailing today," said Elizabeth Rosner, 28, who moved from Michigan to Orlando, Fla., in December 2019 with her fiance just to be close to the cruise industry's hub.
To comply with both the CDC's requirement and a Florida law banning businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, Celebrity Cruises asked guests if they would like to reveal their status. Those who did not show or say they are vaccinated face additional restrictions.
"This is an emotional day for me. When I stepped on board the ship, I was proud. It's a beautiful ship," said Royal Caribbean Cruises' CEO Richard Fain, after expressing condolences to the victims of the Surfside building collapse, less than 15 miles south of the port.
Celebrity Cruises unveiled the $1 billion boat in December 2018 -- betting on luxury cruising, offering a giant spa and multifloor suites. The seven-night cruise will sail for three days in the Western Caribbean waters before making stops in Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico and in Nassau, Bahamas.
The ship is led by Capt. Kate McCue, the first American woman to captain a cruise ship.
"You can truly feel the palpable sense of excitement and energy amongst the group as we prepare for our welcoming of our first guests," McCue said. "I've never honestly seen a group so excited to get back to work."
Industry officials are hoping all goes smoothly to move past last year's chapter of deadly outbreaks on cruise ships that prompted ships to be rejected at ports and passengers to be forced into quarantine. Some passengers died of covid-19 at sea while others fell so ill they had to be carried off the vessels on stretchers.Gallery: Coronavirus scenes, 6-26-2021
The CDC extended no-sail orders repeatedly last year as the pandemic raged, and drew up strict requirements for the industry that have been contested in court by Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis notes that the industry generates billions for the state's economy.
On Saturday, officials at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale said that port alone lost more than $30 million in revenue in fiscal 2020 from the cruise shutdown.
During that hiatus, Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, the three largest cruise companies, have had to raise more than $40 billion in financing just to stay afloat. Collectively they lost $20 billion last year and another $4.5 billion in the first quarter of 2021, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
The pandemic forced Kurt and Carol Budde to cancel their beach celebration wedding aboard the world's largest ship, Symphony of the Seas, in March 2020. The coronavirus outbreak halted cruising six days before they were scheduled to tie the knot in St. Maarten. Kurt Budde's part-time gig as a travel agent also dried up.
"It's a honeymoon make-up cruise," said Kurt Budde, the pair sporting matching shirts with the phrase "On Cruise Control."
"We are living our best lives post-covid today," he said.
Steve and Vicki Lake were among the first passengers in line to board the Celebrity Edge.
"It's our 30th anniversary," Steve said. "We wanted to do something special," Vicki added.
So the Atlanta residents decided they'd take the first cruise to depart a U.S. port with passengers in 15 months. They and other passengers said they love the onboard vaccination rate.
Davie residents Robert and Sandy Silver consider that "super-important," she said.
"We're both vaccinated," Robert Silver said. "That's why we decided to go on the very first."
Still, there's some hesitation. Vicki Lake was asked whether she was more excited, hesitant or thankful about the cruise.
"Kind of all of the above," she said. "But excited, really, like everybody else."
The Celebrity Edge has special adaptations to keep people safe, such as staggered arrivals and departures, contactless transactions, and coronavirus testing and monitoring, said Brian Abel, senior vice president of hotel operations for Celebrity Cruises. It also has expanded medical facilities and an enhanced airflow system, he said.
Excitement for Saturday's cruise might have been even greater for Port Everglades and Celebrity Cruises employees than for the passengers.
Jonathan Daniels, Port Everglades chief executive and port director, called Saturday "a great celebration during unprecedented times."
"I'm glad that today marks the beginning of the recovery from this economic challenge," said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Group.
PROOF OF VACCINATION
In New York, customers wanting to wine, dine and unwind to live music at the City Winery's flagship restaurant must show proof of vaccination to get in. But that's not required at most other dining establishments in the city. And it's not necessary at other City Winery sites around the U.S.
If City Winery tried doing such a thing at its places in Atlanta and Nashville, "we would have no business, because so many people are basically against it," said CEO Michael Dorf.
Across the U.S., many hard-hit businesses eager to return to normal have been reluctant to demand proof of vaccination from customers. And the public and politicians in many places have made clear that they don't care for the idea.
In fact, far more states have banned proof-of-vaccination policies than have created smartphone-based programs for people to display their status.
The CDC still recommends masks when dining or gathering indoors for those who aren't fully vaccinated. But few states require it, and most businesses rely on voluntary compliance -- even in places with low vaccination rates where covid-19 cases are climbing.
Digital vaccine verification programs could make it easier to enforce safeguards and tamp down new outbreaks.
"But that only works when you have mass adoption, and mass adoption requires trust and actual buy-in with what the state health department is doing, which is not necessarily present in all states," said Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Hawaii is the only state enforcing some version of a vaccine passport. It requires travelers to upload a photo or PDF of their Hawaii vaccination document or pass a pre-arrival covid-19 test to avoid having to quarantine for 10 days.
Earlier this month, California became just the third state -- behind New York and Louisiana -- to offer residents a way to voluntarily display digital proof of their shots. None of those states requires the use of their digital verification system to access either public or private-sector places.
By contrast, at least 18 states led by Republican governors or legislatures prohibit the creation of so-called vaccine passports or ban public entities from requiring proof of vaccination. Several of those -- including Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and Texas -- also bar most businesses from denying service to those who aren't vaccinated.
"Texas is open 100%, and we want to make sure that you have the freedom to go where you want without limits," Gov. Greg Abbott said in signing a law against vaccine passports.
The prohibition doesn't apply to the demands employers make on their employees. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas threw out a lawsuit from Houston hospital employees who challenged a workplace requirement that they get vaccinated. More than 150 were later fired or resigned for not getting their shots.
In Louisiana, under a Republican-passed bill facing a potential veto from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, public facilities would not be allowed to bar unvaccinated people until the vaccines have received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration; they're now being dispensed under emergency authorization.
In May, Louisiana started a program allowing residents using the state's digital driver's license to add a record of their vaccination.
But its reach is limited. About 105,000 people have activated the covid-19 verification function. That's about 14% of those with a digital license and less than 4% of Louisiana's 3.1 million people with valid driver's licenses.
Democratic state Rep. Ted James, who wrote the bill creating the digital license, said he has used the feature just once -- to show an Uber driver in Nevada that he didn't need to wear a mask. But James said he has never been asked to show it in Louisiana and doubts he ever will.
"Earlier in the year, I felt that at some point we would be limited in travel, going to certain places, unless we had the vaccine," James said. Now, "I don't foresee us ever having some type of requirement."
The Mountain West has emerged as one of the most vaccine-hesitant regions of the United States. Along with the South, it is lagging far behind the national vaccination pace.
In both Idaho and Wyoming, fewer than 40% of people have received at least one dose, ranking those states among the bottom five in the nation, according to a New York Times database. Montana, Utah and Nevada are doing a bit better, but remain well below the national average of 54%.
Health officials in the region say their efforts have been hampered by sparse populations in their wide-open areas and by the deep-rooted brand of political conservatism that is common among rural residents. But there is more to the story than that.
As in other parts of the country, the unvaccinated in the Mountain West can be divided largely into two camps, experts say.
"There are those who are kind of the wait-and-see folks, and then we have the absolutely, definitely not," said Greg Holzman, who was Montana's state medical officer until April. Rampant misinformation makes it difficult to change minds, he said, and so does the logistical difficulty of providing convenient access in small, widely scattered communities.
There are crosscurrents beneath the statewide trends. For example, American Indians in Montana, after some initial hesitancy, have embraced the shots, while white residents in rural areas have been less accepting.
Garfield County in eastern Montana illustrates some of what health officials are up against. The county was the scene of a lengthy standoff in 1996 between the FBI and an anti-government militia called the Montana Freemen. These days, "the life philosophy is pretty much the same, and that's no government intervention, no way, no how," said Dr. Randall Rauh, medical director of the Garfield County Health Center, a critical access facility and nursing home.
Just 21% of eligible county residents have been fully vaccinated, the lowest rate in Montana, according to state figures.
Rauh said that after the center vaccinated all its nursing home residents, he was accused by an employee of experimenting on old people, and the facility received little support from local officials. The county health department will administer vaccine doses only when 10 or more people show up to get them, Rauh said, so "it's very difficult for people unless they can make the trip to a surrounding county to get vaccinated."
In Utah, home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church's leadership has voiced strong support for vaccination. Even so, a recent survey found that about half of Mormon respondents were hesitant or unwilling to get vaccinated.
Misinformation appears to be a factor among Mormon women, in a state with one of the nation's highest birthrates, said Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. "I've had a lot of questions about fertility," and whether the vaccines affect menstruation, she said. There is no current evidence that the vaccines affect fertility.
Information for this article was contributed by Adriana Gomez Licon, Marta Lavandier and David A. Lieb of The Associated Press; by Chris Perkins of the South Florida Sun Sentinel (TNS); and by Dan Levin of The New York Times.