I Was on Celebrity Cruises' First Passenger Sailing Back Since COVID-19 Hit — Here's What It Was Like

An inside look at life on the Celebrity Edge at sea.

Celebrity Edge
Photo: Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

As the Beastie Boys would have it, you have to fight…for your right…to party, and the June Celebrity Edge re-launch out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida — the first cruise ship carrying ticketed passengers from a United States port since March of 2020 – was just that, a celebration of its victorious battle to reboot the cruising industry.

From the start, the Celebrity Edge cruise had the aura of a grand event: the ship, which can carry slightly over 3,000 guests, sailed with 1,200 passengers. After presenting their COVID-19 vaccination cards, passengers were welcomed with cheers from the crew and escorted to their staterooms, equipped with face masks bearing the Celebrity Cruises logo. The masks were recommended for shore days in Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Nassau.

Celebrity Cruises
Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

In the pre-pandemic era, passengers mustered out to crowded assembly stations in life vests, learning about emergency protocols and meeting their fellow passengers. On Celebrity Cruises, the process can be conducted with the help of an app and is virtually free of human contact.

Naturally, the pre-embarkation festivities for the Western Caribbean cruise entailed the inevitable photo-op at Port Everglades, with the Celebrity Edge principals – including Captain Kate McCue, the first and only American woman working as a cruise ship captain.

On this particular cruise, the fun started at the top. To get the joint jumping on the second evening, Richard Fain -- Chairman & CEO of the Royal Caribbean Group, which embraces Celebrity Cruises -- did an impromptu stint at the Martini Bar in the Grand Plaza, framed by a three-deck high lighting installation with LED crystals.

Fain juggled liquor bottles and poured out drinks to passengers from a stack of cocktail shakers, cheered on by a battery of passengers posting photos online and chanting "Go Richard… Go." The profitable equation of Celebrity Cruises and let-the-good-times-roll pleasure was being beamed out to the world.

CEO Richard Fain at the Celebrity Edge's bar. Bloomberg / Contributor/ Getty Images

By then, I was pretty much up for anything, including a "high energy pop art concert" at The Theatre, surrounded by hundreds of other showbiz fans without masks. In the age of social distance, we were all going from zero to sixty in a millisecond, instantly teleported back to the good old social friction days.

On another level, the Royal Caribbean Group's "Healthy At Sea" program — with everything from HVAC filtered air systems to a "Healthy Sail Panel" of advisors — lent a Brave-New-World-goes-cruising tone.

Breakfast, lunch, and cocktails were invariably taken in the Retreat Lounge, a soothing space with stacks of coverless books and tangerine color accents. Almost every night, I had dinner at the elegant Luminae, which features French pop music, sympathetic lighting cast by Jeremy Cole's Aloe lamps, and artwork by such talents as Tracey Emin. Generally, I ate with a retired couple from Tampa, Fla. who were veterans of some thirty cruises.

"We're cruise people, and for no good reason, we wanted to be on the first cruise out of the United States since the pandemic began," they said. "We all have to start living again."

Travelers eat dinner at Luminae Restaurant on the Celebrity Edge cruise.
Travelers eat dinner at Luminae Restaurant on the Celebrity Edge cruise. Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The CDC rules for cruise ships make sense for passenger health and Celebrity Cruises' bottom line. Under the CDC's new Framework for Conditional Sailing Order (CSO), cruise ships can operate if 95% of the crew and paying passengers are fully vaccinated, and the June 26 Celebrity Edge cruise met those requirements. Unfortunately, Celebrity Cruises, like other cruise companies doing business in Florida, is stuck between two powerful government entities, the CDC and the State of Florida.

The most effective way to ward off COVID-19 on cruise ships is to stop it from getting onboard in the first place. But to Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis, being asked to provide proof of vaccination is an onerous "vaccine passport." According to the New York Times, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody prevailed in a lawsuit to halt the CDC's conditional sailing orders in the court of US District Judge Steven D. Merryday. No doubt, a few legal tussles will be cropping up, but on June 26, Celebrity Cruises said, "In Florida, vaccinations are strongly recommended."

The Celebrity Edge has all sorts of testing protocols for the unvaccinated, and despite the discomfiting sight of children and teenagers running around without masks, I never felt particularly unsafe. After the first few days, I dodged the whirl of the casino, the Theatre, and the forever crowded pool with its two-deck-high, martini-shaped hot tubs, and carved out my own little SuiteClass village.

On the last night of the voyage, just off Nassau, the Celebrity Edge and two other Celebrity Cruises ships performed a waltz of the behemoths, circling each other and sounding their horns. The cruise industry was flexing its muscles, ready for the multi-billion dollar party to begin.

As Fain noted at a press conference during the cruise, "The pandemic once seemed endless. Now, the whole thing seems like a blip."

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