Wrangell doesn’t want cruise ships to dock until it knows port communities will be safe from COVID-19

City Dock is in the heart of downtown Wrangell. Cruise ships dock here during the summer cruise season. (June Leffler/ KSTK)

The City of Wrangell does not want cruise ships to dock in town until it knows how the industry plans to prevent potentially bringing COVID-19 into the community. The Southeast Alaska city is coordinating with a regional effort seeking assurances from operators of small cruise ships seeking to sail this summer.

Large cruises are forbidden under the federal “no-sail” order that runs through late July. But smaller, boutique cruises carrying less than 250 passengers are exempt, with at least one cruise line scheduled to bring people to Southeast Alaska next month.

Coastal communities, working with the Alaska Municipal League, have drafted a letter asking these smaller ships not to visit until they can guarantee regular COVID-19 testing and limit their capacity.

The League’s Executive Director Nils Andreassen says killing off what’s left of the region’s cruise season is not what communities have in mind.

“The end goal is public health, the end goal is vibrant communities. And I think that’s where we’re at right now,” Andreassen said.

In Wrangell, Mayor Steve Prysunka says there are concerns about what would happen if an infected passenger or crew member stepped off a cruise ship.

“We learned along the way that it is not appropriate to take them back on the ship and just isolate them away. And we just don’t have the capacity in our community to be taking in COVID positive people, it just doesn’t work,” he said.

Assembly members like Julie Decker said they want specifics on what precautions cruise companies are taking to prevent that from happening.

“For ‘testing regularly,’ does that mean that if you’re going to be on a ship for a week that you get tested once? Anyway, there’s things that I feel like we need a little beefing up, in the sense of medical credibility,” Decker said.

The assembly voted unanimously to add their name to the Alaska Municipal League’s letter asking for clarity. It remains unclear if local governments could enforce a ban on cruise traffic, as most COVID-19 mandates issued by the state supersede local authority.

Tour operators are hurting from the lack of cruise ships. But Wrangell’s local tour guides say they understand where community leaders are coming from. Stikine River Jet Boat Association Director Caitlin Cardinell says she stands by the city’s efforts to protect the community from infection.

“We’re here and we’re ready to operate when the time is right,” Cardinell says. “I think it’s smart for the ships to work with the municipalities to have an established plan if one of their passengers were COVID positive.”

At least four cruise operators have been talking to Southeast Alaska community leaders. American Cruise Lines is bringing the first ship to Alaska waters, with its American Constellation ship for a round trip cruise from Juneau in late-June. Its website advertises port calls in Skagway, Haines, Petersburg, Ketchikan and Wrangell. Company spokeswoman Alexa Paolella said in a statement that it’s “gained a clearer understanding of individual community concerns and has been able to further tailor our risk mitigation strategy.”

American Cruise Lines’ COVID-19 plan is on its website.

Other small cruise operators including Uncruise, Linblad and Alaska Dream Cruises have suspended their June sailings. As of now, they’re scheduled to resume in July.

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