Celebrity Cruises ship ready to sail with paying passengers, some of whom are unvaccinated

Corrections & Clarifications: This story has been updated with an image of Celebrity Edge, the Celebrity Cruises ship set to be the first to sail from an American port.  

On Saturday, Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Edge is set to be the first cruise ship to set sail from an American port with paying passengers in more than 15 months. Celebrity is a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Group.

The ship is set to depart on a seven night cruise from Fort Lauderdale at 6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, sailing to Mexico and the Bahamas. 

While not every passenger on board has had their COVID vaccines – two adults and 24 kids, about 1% of the total passenger count, are unvaccinated – Royal Caribbean Cruises Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said Friday that he’s confident that the cruise line is ready to get back to business. 

“Fortunately, when you get to a very high level of vaccination, that really covers you,” Fain said during an interview with CNBC. “We do know that there will be cases on board cruise ships. I think the important thing is we make sure they’re isolated cases, and that they don't become an outbreak. … If somebody gets sick, we know how to isolate them.”

The ship’s departure is set to come shortly after four passengers on two ships in Royal Caribbean Cruises' lines – the Celebrity Millennium and more recently, the Adventure of the Seas – tested positive for COVID-19. 

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A rendering of Celebrity Beyond, a sister ship to the Celebrity Edge and the third ship in  Celebrity Cruises' "Edge Series."

How many people are on board? 

The ship is sailing at just 36% capacity, a level Fain considers a sign of “untapped demand” given the short notice to book.

Celebrity Cruises, a subsidiary Royal Caribbean Group, had received approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to sail one of its ships with paying passengers on board late last month. 

While the lower occupancy means the cruise is less profitable, Fain told CNBC that he wanted to slowly rebuild operations.

“We haven’t been operating for 15 months, our crew haven’t been operating on ships for 15 months,” he said. “We want to ... give people the chance to practice and get back to the experience.”

Eight of the 14 ships within Celebrity Cruises' fleet plan to return to sailing this year, according to a Saturday news release. 

How many passengers are vaccinated?

While all crew members are vaccinated, Fain said the company won't enforce vaccines among passengers leaving from a Florida port.

While the CDC had told cruise lines that they would need 95% of passengers and 95% of crew vaccinated in order to skip test sailings, the mandate contradicted a Florida state law banning businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. 

According to Celebrity's website, for cruises departing from ports outside of Florida, all passengers age 16 and older will still be required to be fully vaccinated. Starting Aug. 1, that age drops to 12. 

On Friday, Fain told Yahoo Finance that he appreciates the work Florida Gov. DeSantis has done to advocate for the cruise industry, and added that the company will “try and talk (unvaccinated passengers) into a vaccination.”

“We recommend that people take vaccinations, and we really encourage it, but we do accept that there are some who don’t, some children who can’t get vaccines,” Fain said. “We will manage the process so that we will make sure we never go too far with unvaccinated people, and if necessary we’ll close down a cruise. But we think that’s all workable.” 

Passengers test COVID positive on Adventure of the Seas 

Fain acknowledged that there will be incidents where passengers test positive for COVID, but believes Royal Caribbean has the ability to manage those cases and avoid a greater outbreak aboard the ship. He pointed to the recent incidents with the Celebrity Millennium and Adventure of the Seas, saying "those cases were handled."

Two passengers from the United States who shared a room on the Celebrity Millennium tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month.

And Wednesday evening, two guests under 16 and unvaccinated aboard Adventure of the Seas tested positive for COVID after routine testing. They were "immediately quarantined," and only one experienced mild symptoms, according to a statement from Royal Caribbean spokesperson Lyan Sierra Caro.  

The Adventure of the Seas passengers' close contacts were vaccinated and tested negative. The passengers and their travel party disembarked Thursday in Freeport on Grand Bahama Island.

"Nobody else on board was inconvenienced in any way," Fain told CNBC. "Those people were isolated. … everybody else carried on with their vacation uninterrupted."

What are the rules for unvaccinated passengers?

Passengers who are unvaccinated will face additional protocols in order to board the ship, including COVID testing at their own cost.

“For most people, it’s a great cruise whether you’re vaccinated or not,” Fain told Yahoo Finance. “We just hope more are and our experience is that most people want to be vaccinated.”