Smaller vessels are exempt from the federal no sail order, but is Alaska ready for a small ship cruise season?

An Uncruise boat docked in Juneau on April 23, 2020. The cruise season has been gutted by travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

This year’s cruise ship season has been gutted. More than 80% of sailings have been canceled. That’s due in large part to a federal no sail order that restricts large cruise ships from sailing until the end of July. But small cruise ships are exempted from the order, leaving local officials wondering whether they’re ready to welcome an influx of visitors as soon as next month.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum recently spoke with leaders of port communities during a meeting organized by the Alaska Municipal League. The topic was how to deal with a potential influx of small cruise ships later this year.

Ketchikan City Mayor Bob Sivertsen was on the call. He says he’s concerned that an influx of passengers could bring in coronavirus that could overwhelm local hospitals and clinics.

“We haven’t seen anything from the cruise industry yet as to what their precautionary measures are going to be to meet the mandates and health standards that have been set,” Sivertsen said.

Those on the call say this is just the beginning of talks to figure out an approach to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 that could come from small cruise ships. The state didn’t present any plans. Siversten says for his community, public health is the priority, but clearly Ketchikan relies on tourism dollars.

“The local governments are tasked with trying to wade through the process to see if they can safely bring a ship and passengers to a community,” he said.

As Crum and mayors of port communities just now begin to address that concern, the cruise lines themselves have no time to wait. They need to be sure the first sailing of their season has mitigation protocols in place, can comply with state mandates and is even worth it financially.

Related: Small, boutique cruise lines are still planning on a 2020 season in Southeast Alaska

In just the past two weeks smaller cruise lines have cancelled June sailings. Not coincidentally, these cancellations came in after the governor’s overhaul of the state health mandates last month. While local businesses are on the path to reopening, traveling to the state is still restricted.

“So until that 14-day quarantine goes away, I don’t see how it could work, that’s my personal opinion,” said Mark Jensen, Petersburg’s mayor.

His town set some restrictions on leisure boats coming to his town of 3,000 people. All boats with 25 or more passengers must get approval from city officials to dock. This mandate targets intra-state travel, but Jensen believes state mandates would do the job of curbing small cruise ships.

Small Cruise Lines like UnCruise and Alaska Dream Cruises recently cancelled their June sailings. Both of these companies operate ships that carry less than 100 passengers. Zak Kirkpatrick with Allen Marine Tours wrote in a statement it would be difficult for crew to abide by current state mandates.

Liz Galloway of UnCruise wrote that travelers own safety concerns will dictate booking numbers and the season.

Both are set to resume sailing in July.

Brenda Swartz-Yeger has been trying to keep up with the schedule changes. She runs a tour company and sells her own art out of her shop in Wrangell that depends on it.

“I think the cruise ship picture is becoming clearer and more bleak as days go on,” she says.

The Southeast town gets only a taste of Alaska’s cruise ship traffic. But for mom-and-pop operators like Schwartz-Yeager, it’s been a big boost. She says she’ll take 20 passengers out on the water on a good cruise day.

Small ships dock most days in the summer in Wrangell. Schwartz-Yeager can only expect four ships in May and June. And full season cancellations from those like Seabourn sting.

“Great high-end clientele that take a lot of tours and buy art in my shop and things like that cancelled their whole season,” she says.

For the players still in the game, they may pivot again when the state decides to reassess travel restrictions that are set to sunset on May 19.

KSTK - Wrangell

KSTK is our partner station in Wrangell. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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