— Travel n Tour

To Test Covid Protocols, Cruise Lines Turn to Volunteer Guinea Pigs

Since March of last year, cruise ships carrying more than 250 people have been prohibited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from sailing in U.S. waters. To start again, they need to follow a complex process that, in some cases, involves simulated cruises designed to test Covid-19 protocols. Hundreds of thousands of frustrated and restless cruise fans have lined up to be guinea pigs.

Jennifer Juenke is one of them.

“Ever since the C.D.C. shut down the cruise industry, we have been living through a complete nightmare,” said Ms. Juenke, one of more than 250,000 people who signed up for a test sailing with Royal Caribbean, a major cruise company. “It has been too long, and we are just raring to go.” On Tuesday, Royal Caribbean became the first cruise line to receive approval from the C.D.C. to conduct simulated voyages planned for its Freedom of the Seas ship starting from PortMiami in Florida in late June.

For some of the volunteers, it’s a way to offer support to the $150 billion industry, decimated by the pandemic. For others, it’s a chance to get a feel for what post-pandemic cruising will feel like. But for most who’ve raised their hands, it’s a way to sate their longing to get back on a boat after more than a year of being stuck onshore. “The C.D.C. has been holding us all captive, and I really can’t wait any longer; I can’t wait until July,” said Justin Marks, a 59-year-old retired Alabama resident, referring to one target date that has been floated for when ships might start sailing.

Mr. Marks, who has 12 cruises booked through 2022, is undeterred by the outbreaks onboard cruise ships at the pandemic’s start last year. “I’m dying to be picked for the test cruise, mostly because I need to start cruising again for my sanity,” he said, “but also because I want to show the world how much safer a cruise ship is than any plane or hotel that has been allowed to operate throughout the whole pandemic.”

Exactly how the cruise lines will return to operations in the United States remains unclear. Earlier this month, the C.D.C. said it would allow cruise lines to skip test voyages if they attest that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers onboard a cruise are fully vaccinated.

Several major cruise companies have already announced Alaska sailings starting in late July, which will require all passengers to prove that they are vaccinated. But in Florida, the cruise lines’ most significant U.S. departure point, recently enacted state law bans businesses from requiring proof of immunizations from people seeking to use their services. Florida officials have said they will not exempt the cruise lines. Suppose cruise companies decide to sail with a mix of vaccinated and non-vaccinated passengers. In that case, they will have to carry out simulation cruises with volunteers to test health and safety protocols.

That has avid cruisers like Mark Zumo, 53, from Baton Rouge, La., eager to help out, even though, he said, he realizes the test cruises will not be like the real thing. (He had 20 cruises canceled during the pandemic and has already booked 25 between this August and December 2022.)

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