Large passenger cruises have been banned in U.S. waters since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic began, devastating the cruise industry and a loyal community. But both are now thankful that the no-sail order has been lifted, giving cruise lines a path to sailing again.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has new rules before real voyages can begin: ramp up coronavirus protocols and testing; limit capacity onboard; and stage “mock voyages with volunteers who will play the role of passengers.”
Royal Caribbean said Thursday that it received thousands of inquiries from loyal cruisers about that endeavor, so it created an official sign-up page and Facebook group for interested cruisers. Early Thursday, thousands of volunteers began rolling in.
“23 cruises with Royal. 4 canceled by RC this year and we miss our cruises,” wrote Collin Hext, 63, of Tyler, Tex. “This Firefighter and his dear wife are ready to go at any time!!”
“Who else in this group is in Tampa? I cannot wait to get back to cruising!” wrote Susel Rosario, 34, who works for a health-care company and signed up to volunteer with her husband.
The public group had amassed over 20,000 members by Friday, even as the first cruise in the Caribbean since March was halted after multiple passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Avid cruisers posted photos from their favorite past voyages and bragged about their loyalty status on the Facebook page. But not everyone was so sure about the opportunity.
“So if 1 person tests positive on the ship, everyone is quarantined on the ship for 14 days?” one member asked.
“What’s everyone’s thoughts on how much in the way of rights people would be signing away to become a volunteer on one of these cruises?” asked another. “I am thinking insurance would not cover any treatment related to anything caught during these test cruises.”
Royal Caribbean has not clarified the volunteering terms, or what exact onboard health scenarios would be tested on the mock journeys, saying in an email that it is “still reviewing the CDC framework and [does] not have details on our simulated sailings.”
Hext, a 63-year-old retired firefighter, says he has no concerns about he and his wife, Hope, 62, potentially being selected for a mock sailing. “I’m excited more than anything. We are both very active and healthy, and I’m not concerned about contracting anything.”
Hext says he has read all of the new CDC guidelines for cruise ships, which require coronavirus testing of all passengers and crew before voyages depart, as well as enhanced cleanings, revamped air filtration and new onboard medical cabins. He thinks the cruise lines “have gone above and beyond” in terms of the protocols they have said they will implement.
Another volunteer, Clinton Seal, 49, says he is not worried about getting the virus on a cruise ship or anywhere else. “The survival rate is really high, so I think if you get it, most likely you’ll be fine.”
Seal signed up himself and his wife, Julie, 44, to be Royal Caribbean volunteers, and he says they will get a babysitter for their 16-month-old baby if they are selected. The couple visited Disney World in October, and Clinton says they felt safe and had no issues wearing masks for their entire experience, including the flights to and from Florida.
He does hope the cruise lines will clarify if coronavirus testing and other expenses will be paid for, but he notes that he and his wife are “eager” to help out in any way.
Rosario, 34, of Tampa, who volunteered with her husband, Freddy, 37, also has some questions. “My only concern would be to be left onboard a ship like other people [were] when covid first hit,” she said. But “I’m not worried about the cruise lines’ safety measures. Even before covid, they were extremely clean, you would always see the crew cleaning all over the boat. To me, it’s the same thing as going to a store now, wearing a mask,” Rosario says.
All three have extensive cruising experience: Rosario has been on eight cruises with Disney and Carnival. Seal has been on 16 cruises with Royal Caribbean. Hext has been on 36 total cruises — 23 of them with Royal Caribbean.
Hext, Seal and Rosario say their understanding of the word “volunteer” is that they will not be paid by the cruise line. They are willing to give their time for free.
Seal also sees the mock cruises as having a bigger purpose. “What I’m hoping for is just to be part of getting cruising started back up,” he says. “If this is one of the steps for that to happen then it needs to happen. Cruising benefits not just the cruise industry, but the workers, the ports that need the cruises, everybody.”
“I feel like the cruise lines have gotten a bad rap during this whole deal,” Rosario says. “They have always been clean, and thought of their guests, putting them first.
“If the public is not comfortable with sailing again, they should refrain from going,” she says. But as for excited cruisers, “let the ones who feel ok with it take advantage.”