The check-in process started at home, through Celebrity’s app or website, which allowed cruise travellers to fill out all their paperwork
One by one, the passengers pulled down their masks and rejoiced as they cleared security and health screening to board the first cruise ship sailing out of North America since the pandemic was declared in March last year.
One woman threw her bag on the floor and started shimmying to the Caribbean calypso beat playing in the welcome hall. Another triumphantly bumped fists with a crew member before giving him a hug, while an older man]stood still and gazed at the elated guests, his eyes welling up as he processed the reality of being back on a cruise, one of more than 400 he has taken in his lifetime.
“We’re back, we’re home,” a passenger yelled. “Welcome back, ma’am,” a crew member responded with a gleaming smile. “We’ve missed you.” For many of the 600 or so passengers embarking on the Celebrity Millennium, operated by Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity Cruises, from the Caribbean island of St Maarten, this was the moment they had dreamed of over the past 15 months, as cruise ships remained docked, even after vaccinations rolled out in the US and people started to travel again.
For the ship’s 650 crew members, the event was equally joyous, bringing relief after a gruelling year without work. “It was very difficult to survive at home for 14 months,” said Donald Sihombing, a 33-year-old stateroom attendant from Indonesia. “I feel … lucky to be back. There are still so many people who have to wait for cruises to start in America to be able to work again.”
The Celebrity Millennium, left, operated by Royal CaribbeanÕs Celebrity Cruises, docked in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, on June 5, 2021. It sailed with about a third of the usual number of passengers, all of them vaccinated. (Jean Vallette/The New York Times)
The major cruise lines are preparing to restart operations from US ports, with Celebrity Edge poised to be the first, sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on 26 June, with all crew and at least 95% of passengers fully vaccinated, in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But those plans could be disrupted if Florida does not exempt the cruise lines from a recently enacted state law banning businesses from requiring proof of immunisation from people seeking to use their services. Celebrity is currently in talks with the CDC and state authorities in Florida and is optimistic that a solution will be reached in time.
Susan Lomax, the company’s associate vice-president for global public relations, said it would continue to offer vaccinated voyages to ensure the health and safety of guests, crew and local communities in destinations visited.
To board the Celebrity Millennium all adult passengers were required to fill out a health questionnaire and show proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test. In addition, St Maarten required visitors to present a printed copy of its own health screening document, which had to be authorised ahead of time.
Passengers board the Celebrity Millennium, operated by Royal CaribbeanÕs Celebrity Cruises, docked in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, on June 5, 2021. A reporter took the first cruise from a North American port since the pandemic began. Here’s what she learned about how COVID-19 has changed cruising. (Jean Vallette/The New York Times)
The check-in process started at home, through Celebrity’s app or website, which allowed travellers to scan their passports, fill out paperwork and book a time slot for boarding.
Once all the steps were completed, the system generated an express pass designed to minimise contact and speed up boarding procedures.
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At the departure hall, the pass was scanned and vaccination and test certificates were reviewed, then guests could board.
Those who cruise regularly will be familiar with the muster drill, a safety exercise that usually requires passengers to gather and watch a safety demonstration that takes 30 minutes or more. One passenger described the process as “miserable”.
The Celebrity MillenniumÕs captain, Theodoros Zakkas, addresses passengers after the ship left port, on June 5, 2021. A reporter took the first cruise from a North American port since the pandemic began. HereÕs what she learned about how COVID-19 has changed cruising. (Ceylan Yeginsu/The New York Times)
This week, Celebrity debuted its new e-muster system, which allows passengers to take a tutorial on their electronic devices, showing them how to wear life vests and familiarising them with the sound of emergency signals. Once on board, passengers simply walk to their designated muster area and are given a small sticker to put on their room card to show they have completed the process.
Upon embarkation, guests were allowed to go straight to their rooms. (Before the pandemic, they had to wait until 1pm). All the rooms were stocked with hand sanitiser and masks, and were disinfected each day.
Some cruise fans feared buffets would be abolished, but in the Oceanview Cafe, on the 10th deck of Celebrity Millennium, the buffet stations were in full force. The main difference was that the food was served by crew members.
A buffet station aboard the Celebrity Millennium in June 2021. A reporter took the first cruise from a North American port since the pandemic began. HereÕs what she learned about how COVID-19 has changed cruising. (Ceylan Yeginsu/The New York Times)
When guests enter the restaurant, they must first wash their hands at the basins in the entrance – a requirement even before the pandemic. Then they can stroll from station to station, pointing at what they want for the staff to portion out.
After a frustrating year of booking multiple cruises only to have them cancelled or postponed, many guests were elated to be back on a ship, even though they were not sure what to expect.
“We’ve cruised about 28 times on all different varieties of ship, but with this crazy virus, we didn’t know how this would look and feel, so we wanted to try it out and see if we felt safe,” said Squirrel Simpson, 68, an avid cruiser from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who was sitting with her husband at the pool bar sipping a mimosa. Her verdict: “This is incredible.
Lounging chair on a cruise ship looking to the horizon
It feels like we are back in before pandemic times – interacting with people without masks, eating in restaurants, seeing shows. It’s a dream.”
She found the emptiness of the boat surreal and said she missed the buzz of lots of passengers. “Normally, you’d have to come out here at 7am and you’d be lucky if you could find an empty chair to put your towel on, but now you have so much choice,” she said, pointing at the empty rows of deck chairs around the pool area.
Michelle Lewis, 56, and Chad Curtis, 34, from Orange County, California, celebrated the first night of their honeymoon at the Tuscan Grill restaurant. They winced at the suggestion they were guinea pigs, testing out health-and-safety protocols.
“I don’t feel like a guinea pig, I feel like a pioneer,” Lewis said. “There might be issues and I think you have to be prepared for things not going perfectly. But look at us,” she said, gesturing at the ocean in the background. “We are in the middle of the Caribbean Sea … with wonderful people and crew. It feels fantastic.”
Passengers during an excursion in Barbados, in June 2021. Passengers were not allowed to wander the island on their own, or even swim to the beach. (Ceylan Yeginsu/The New York Times)
Usually when a ship makes a port stop, guests can participate in excursions. Coronavirus restrictions in Barbados meant passengers were only allowed “bubble excursions”, designed to limit interactions with the local population.
In the second port of call, Aruba, guests were free to travel by themselves. Marni Turner, 52, from Florida said: “It’s weird to have to put on the mask again and worry about Covid. It feels much safer and comfortable on board.”