(6:05 p.m. EDT) -- Celebrity Cruises has adjusted several onboard health and safety protocols for its upcoming international sailings -- and information on its U.S. restart could come as soon as next week.
In a travel agent webinar Tuesday, Celebrity Vice President of Sales Dondra Ritzenthaler gave several updates that stem from the ongoing discussions the cruise industry has been having with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
While the line had not publicly stated whether it will require vaccines for U.S. departures, Ritzenthaler said travel agents should expect that mandate for all Celebrity sailings.
"We are going to do vaccinated guests no matter what," she said. "We want to be so smart and so safe to make sure that every guest who comes onboard is immediately comfortable."
To that end, the line's vaccine requirement has been extended to passengers who are 16 and 17 years old. Previously, only passengers older than 18 were required to be vaccinated, and those who were younger could submit a negative PCR COVID-19 test to board. She said the line was also considering requiring vaccines for guests ages 12 to 15.
Second, vaccinated passengers will be able to go ashore on their own without taking a ship-sponsored excursion, if the port allows it, Ritzenthaler said. Because guidelines with COVID-19 are often changing, the ship will let passengers know when they are onboard if they need to stick with a cruise line excursion or wear a mask in port, she said.
Third, onboard mask requirements have been eased for vaccinated passengers. While this follows the updated guidance in the Conditional Sail Order that was released next week, Ritzenthaler specifically said that the definition of what constitutes a crowded venue was now at the "jurisdiction of the cruise line."
For the few people onboard who can't be vaccinated, masks are still required, she said. "If you can't be vaccinated, then you have to wear a mask if you're going from your room to the restaurant," she said. But when people are seated in venues or at dinner, they will not have to wear one, and they won't have to wear one outdoors, she said.
Testing requirements for two of the Celebrity itineraries currently announced -- Greece with Celebrity Apex and St. Maarten with Celebrity Millennium -- have also been adjusted.
Fully vaccinated passengers going to Greece don't need to take a COVID-19 test to enter the country but will need to take an antigen test before boarding.
Vaccinated guests traveling to St. Maarten still need to take a PCR COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival on the island, but do not need to take a second antigen test to board. Alternatively, they could take a PCR test five days before arriving to St. Maarten but would need to take a second antigen test to board. Unvaccinated passengers will need to take an antigen test before boarding in addition to that first test to get on the island.
Back-to-back sailings are also now allowed. Vaccinated cruisers on these sailings will take another antigen test before the second leg, while unvaccinated cruisers will have to take a second PCR test, Ritzenthaler said.
All people returning to the U.S. must still take a COVID-19 test to enter, which the cruise line will provide, she said.
U.S. Return Next Week, Alaska, DeSantis' Vaccine Passport
In her seminar, Ritzenthaler, along with Charles Sylvia, Vice President of Industry and Trade for the Cruise Line International Association, addressed several other industry hot-button issues.
In an exciting development for cruise passengers eagerly awaiting news of a return of U.S. mainstream sailings, Ritzenthaler said that the line would likely announce its return to service "next week."
"I don't know what day it will be," she said, adding that the line would set up an information session for travel agents as soon as it knew.
In terms of Alaska sailings, Sylvia said this was the "make or break week" for the industry. While the possibility of cruising in Alaska took a major step forward last week once the Senate passed a bill bypassing the Passenger Vessel Services Act, the legislation still needs to pass the House and receive President Biden's signature.
"We'll know by the end of this week what is going to happen with Alaska," he said. "Everyone is on the same page."
The lines are currently working with individual public health authorities in each destination to come up with agreements to submit to the CDC, he said. He expressed "cautious optimism" that a truncated Alaska summer season would be able to take place.
Sylvia said the current lawsuit filed by the state of Florida and supported by Alaska and Texas, would likely have no effect -- positive or negative -- on the cruise industry's return to service. The lawsuit is in a 10-day mediation but "so much progress has been made," Sylvia said, that "this will be completely sorted out."
Finally, both Sylvia and Ritzenthaler said that the ban on vaccine passports signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would likely end up not affecting cruise ships and lines.
"DeSantis is a proponent of cruise departures from Florida," Sylvia said. "The headline message here is that the cruise industry will not be affected by that. As it gets turned into operational protocols, solutions will be developed."