Southeast ports trying to determine if — and how — small ships can safely visit during pandemic

The Wilderness Adventurer, an Uncruise small ship, 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)

Southeast Alaska port communities are working on a set of criteria to allow cruising to resume in the region in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s not clear when or how exactly that will happen.

Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon told his city council last week that boutique carrier American Cruise Lines had cancelled a planned overnight port call on June 22. But he said the line was interested in bringing the 175-passenger American Constellation to the First City on June 30.

An early version of American Cruise Lines’ plan falls short of proposed standards Southeast ports are developing with the Alaska Municipal League (AML), Amylon wrote in a pre-meeting memo. Notably, the line’s plan lacked specific procedures for transferring infected guests off the ship and quarantining those who might have been exposed. But the company’s plan isn’t final, and American Cruise Lines told him it’s sensitive to port communities’ concerns, Amylon said Thursday.

“I suggested to them that if they were serious about addressing those concerns that we could facilitate them reaching out to the executive director of AML, to try to schedule a meeting with not only the Southeast port communities, but the other small lines,” he said.

The Municipal League’s memo on behalf of Southeast cruise ports asks for a voluntary moratorium on small ship cruising until “mutually agreed upon protocols can be finalized between the industry and communities.” U.S.-flagged ships like the Constellation that carry less than 250 people aren’t subject to a federal no-sail order and are unaffected by Canadian port closures.

Council Member Emily Chapel noted that any standards would need to balance the risk of potential infection with the economic benefit of tourism.

“Because we understand that the risk is never going to be zero,” she said.

But precautions may affect both sides of the risk-benefit equation. Ketchikan City Mayor Bob Sivertsen relayed a concern he’d heard from another cruise port.

“One community had heard that the ship was not planning to use the retail area in the community; they had planned to utilize a couple of large group tours and just do that,” he said. “So then the community says, ‘Well, what’s my benefit for accepting the risk and bringing potential COVID to the community?’”

Sivertsen wouldn’t say which specific community has that concern Friday, but said it was “one of the big three.”

The council unanimously postponed any decision on whether to allow small ships to dock until its next meeting on June 4.

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