Sunday, for the first time in 18 months, cruise ship passengers flocked to the Port of Baltimore, and as a steel drummer played in the terminal, they boarded the Carnival Pride, bound for the Bahamas.
Nancy Houchens, a longtime cruiser who has traveled on 118 Carnival voyages, cut the ribbon so boarding could begin Sunday morning, a pair of large blue scissors in hand.
“I’ll probably cry,” she said.
Houchens, 70, of North Garden, Virginia, said she was excited to see the crew aboard the ship, and give them a bag of candy to thank them — one of her favorite cruising traditions.
The Pride, which is operating at 70% capacity, is Carnival’s ninth ship to welcome passengers back since the coronavirus pandemic halted cruise operations in March 2020, said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. And Sunday’s weeklong voyage comes with a host of health and safety restrictions for guests.
All passengers were required to be fully vaccinated, with a limited number of exceptions for children under 12, who can’t be vaccinated yet, and people with documented medical conditions. Less than 5% of the roughly 1,500 passengers aboard the ship are unvaccinated for those reasons, Duffy said.
All passengers were also required to obtain a negative antigen or PCR test within three days of boarding.
Aboard the ship, all guests ages 2 and older will be required to wear face masks in elevators and in certain indoor areas, including in all retail shops and the casino, unless they are eating or drinking.
Donna Ford, 60, of Pittsburgh said she was eager for a return to cruising, not least because several cruises of hers have been canceled in recent months, she said. Even though she wasn’t pleased to hear that masks would be required in certain areas aboard the mostly vaccinated ship, that did little to temper her excitement.
“I don’t like it, but if that’s what it takes for me to cruise, then I’m OK with it,” Ford said.
Cruises have forged on this summer in the face of rising COVID-19 cases nationwide fueled by the delta variant.
So far, several Carnival ships have come under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control, either for having one or more crew members test positive, for having 0.1% of passengers test positive or for not submitting required paperwork.
“There have been positive cases, primarily among crew members,” Duffy said. “But fortunately, because our crew is vaccinated, they’re asymptomatic or very mild symptoms.”
In August, the CDC recommended that travelers with an increased risk of developing severe illness avoid cruise ships altogether. Those who decide to embark should get a COVID-19 test one to three days before they leave and three to five days after they return, regardless of their vaccination status, according to the CDC’s guidance.
The preparations at the port were extensive, said William P. Doyle, its executive director. Port officials also contracted with a transportation firm in case any sick passengers need to be removed from the ship mid-voyage. Rooms are available for quarantining at the Lord Baltimore downtown and at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum Heights, Doyle said.
Doyle, who began his tenure as port director 14 months ago, had yet to see a cruise leave from the terminal under his leadership.
“To see the Carnival Pride as you’re coming off of [Interstate] 95 — it’s just wonderful,” Doyle said.
Royal Caribbean, the other company that operates cruises from the port, has its first Baltimore voyage scheduled for Dec. 23.
Carnival passengers Antjuan Yates-Butler and her husband, Philip Butler, were supposed to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary on a cruise last year, but their trip was canceled due to the pandemic. The pair were married aboard the Carnival Ecstasy in July 2000. So, Sunday’s trip was a belated celebration, and the couple said they felt confident in the health and safety measures in place.
“We’re on the very first voyage out, so it’s probably the cleanest ship we’ve been on,” Antjuan Yates-Butler said.
Approaching the terminal Sunday, Kimberly Tomaro carried a three-ring binder with her family’s boarding documents.
Getting all of the information together and getting everyone tested for the virus was “nerve-wracking,” she said. Her 4-year-old son Ethan, who’s traveling with them, is too young to be vaccinated, but Tomaro said she felt her son would be safe, given that the vast majority of other passengers have their shots.
Sunday’s cruise will be Ethan’s fourth, she said, and he had been yearning to go back to sea.
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“He asks almost every day to go on the boat,” said Tomaro, who’s from Clarksburg, West Virginia. “He loves it.”