New COVID-19 protocols for cruise passengers could hamper Skagway’s economic rebound

Quiet streets in Skagway. September, 2020. (Claire Stremple / KHNS)

New COVID-19 protocols for cruise passengers would limit their shore experience to cruise line-approved tours, stores and restaurants. The municipality of Skagway doesn’t want to see any local businesses left behind.

The pandemic dealt the cruise industry a crippling blow this year. Port closures and emergency orders effectively canceled sailings to Alaska after the virus infected hundreds of people on vessels around the world. Dozens of passengers died.

So the industry has a lot riding on safety protocols for a 2021 season. And so does Skagway — nearly its entire economy is at stake.

When the Centers for Disease Control asked port communities to weigh in on how cruise ships should operate, Mayor Andrew Cremata was concerned about the implications of one of the questions: “Should cruise ship operators limit shore excursions?”

At an August municipal assembly meeting, he said that idea raised red flags. Since then, the cruise industry released health protocols that indicate it will control passenger movement on shore.

Cremata says he’s wary of a scenario where the federal government allows the cruise ship industry to control which local businesses see passengers.

“Say, in the town of Skagway there were only two tour operators, one restaurant, and four retail outlets that were approved by the cruise ship. Where does that leave the vast majority of business owners? Obviously, that’s not a tenable situation. You could get a million passengers in ’21 and still see 80% of our businesses go under,” he said.

Cruise lines say they plan to contain passengers in “bubbles” on and off shore. Mayor Cremata argues that, with fewer than 1,000 residents and one main street, the whole town is a little bubble of its own. It’s an outlier in that sense, and in another. Skagway has never had a confirmed positive case of the coronavirus.

Some see an opportunity to turn that exceptional record into an exception — to let all of Skagway be “in bounds” for cruise passengers.

“Right now we’re negotiating with the chip that we are COVID-free. And that’s our biggest and best chip,” said assembly member Dustin Stone at the last assembly meeting.

Cremata said the community needs to be ready to do whatever it takes to convince the cruise industry not to limit passenger movement in town.

“Skagway has to be prepared — you may be a very pro-mask, you may be very anti-mask, and that’s all great — but if the cruise ship companies say that everybody needs to wear a diaper on their head or they’re not going to do business here, we better be willing to go out and buy a box of Pampers. Because otherwise, we’re not going to have a community here, post-2021,” he said.

In a letter to the municipality’s tourism department, Alaska cruise industry representative Mike Tibbles wrote that “this initial restart is not where we hope to be in the future,” and the industry “looks forward” to expanding its safety net so that more shops, attractions and restaurants are included.

Cremata said conversations with cruise lines and other industry representatives have been similarly positive, but none of them has made him a binding commitment yet.

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