Cruise ships will skip Ketchikan if major COVID-19 outbreaks continue, according to city officials

Smoky haze covered Ketchikan on Wednesday. The National Weather Service said it’s not anticipated to pose a health hazard.
Ketchikan’s docks in September 2020. (Eric Stone/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Cruise ships will continue to bypass Ketchikan if COVID-19 cases remain high. That’s the word from senior city and pandemic response officials.

Ketchikan’s City Council on Thursday discussed whether the community’s emergency operations center continues to serve a useful purpose.

Big cruise ships are officially planning their return to Alaska this summer, with ships scheduled to arrive starting in late July. Seven of the towering vessels are currently slated to tie up in town in the latter portion of the summer, the city’s port director said Thursday.

But if Ketchikan can’t get a handle on the spread of COVID-19, City Manager Karl Amylon told the city council, cruise lines may decide to skip Alaska’s First City.

“We’ve been told point-blank by industry representatives that they will bypass a community that’s in a red zone, that has major outbreaks,” Amylon said.

And it’s already happened twice this month. UnCruise, a boutique cruise line that runs boats carrying a few dozen passengers apiece, has so far canceled two planned stops in Ketchikan as the community faces its largest-ever COVID-19 outbreak. As of Friday, a New York Times database showed Ketchikan’s rate of spread as the second-highest in the country, trailing only rural Chattahoochee County, Georgia.

Amid the outbreak, City Council members were discussing the idea of shutting down the community’s emergency operations center, which coordinates the pandemic response. Its most visible function is as a clearinghouse for pandemic information — case numbers, risk levels, recommendations to reduce the disease’s spread. Amylon said cruise lines were looking to the EOC for the most accurate, up-to-date information on COVID-19 in Ketchikan.

Council Member Judy Zenge said it wasn’t clear the EOC’s actions during this latest outbreak were having much effect. She said it was time to look at either making the EOC’s recommendations more effective, or shutting it down.

“So (the) EOC hasn’t prevented any COVID cases. So COVID is still here. I understand the industry is going to be looking to you, or to the EOC. But is there not another organization who handles this elsewhere?” Zenge asked. “Isn’t it public health or health care folks that handle this?”

Emergency manager Abner Hoage said that Ketchikan’s public health office couldn’t currently handle the extra workload. And he said it’s difficult to gauge just how effective the EOC’s actions were at stemming the spread.

“Maybe we stand down, and we’re totally fine, and nothing happens,” Hoage said. “And then again, maybe this information is what’s been keeping us from having uncontrolled spread.”

He emphasized that the EOC’s primary tool for keeping a lid on the pandemic was information: a list of voluntary recommendations.

And he pointed out that there still are many people who don’t yet have access to the vaccine: namely, everyone under the age of 12.

“I’ve heard the argument that they don’t have significant negative outcomes from COVID. They survive it, basically, right?” Hoage said. “But what we don’t know is, what are the long term effects of COVID going to be (on) kids? And do we really want to write that off for them?”

The council ultimately declined to take any action on the EOC following the discussion. Vice Mayor Dave Kiffer, who presided in the absence of the city’s mayor, said it would be improper — the council had only announced it’d be discussing the subject, not acting on it.

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