Sitka gives green light to accept ships after feds pave way for cruising this summer

A Holland America cruise ship at the Halibut Point Marine Services dock in Sitka in 2016.
A Holland America cruise ship at the Halibut Point Marine Services dock in Sitka in 2016. (Photo courtesy Chris McGraw)

This week, federal legislation paved the way for cruising this summer. Now, Southeast Alaska communities must quickly prepare to receive cruise ships as early as July.

When the Sitka Assembly met Tuesday, it gave the city administrator authority to enter into port agreements with cruise companies that plan to visit Sitka this summer. But first, the ships must meet certain criteria required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the resolution, the city administrator can enter into a port agreement with a cruise line, but only if certain conditions are met first. The cruise companies must provide their ship schedules for approval, and cruise ship operators must agree to meet the city’s mitigation rules along with current CDC standards.

Right now, the CDC requires 98% of cruise staff and 95% of passengers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to skip the requirement to participate in test voyages without passengers.

City Administrator John Leach said he’d been working with other Southeast community leaders to draft the guidelines for port agreements. But with the abbreviated summer cruise season now quickly approaching, Leach said that process would need to be streamlined.

“We all recognize that if we had to take every individual port agreement for every single trip back to the Assembly or back to the EOC and find out what the standards are at that given moment … we’re starting to get in the way of them being able to operate their business,” he said.

Chris McGraw owns Halibut Point Marine Services, Sitka’s private cruise ship terminal. He urged the Assembly to approve the resolution.

“We’re about seven weeks out from the first ship that is scheduled,” McGraw said during public comment. “The sooner that we can get these agreements in place, the sooner everybody will know that ships will be coming and everybody can get prepared.”

Leach said there were still a lot of unknowns they’d have to sort out over the next few weeks with the CDC’s instructions. For example, what happens if a cruise passenger tests positive for the coronavirus?

“Right now, all of our hotels in town are booked for the remainder of summer. So if a passenger comes in here and they test positive and they have to disembark the ship and then there’s also a rule that says they can’t get on a plane and get out of here, they have to travel by the road system, where do we put them?” Leach asked.

And what happens if there’s a big outbreak in Southeast? Assembly member Kevin Knox asked if the city would be able to respond, should a ship stop in a high-risk community before visiting Sitka.

“What’s going on in Ketchikan right now could have been avoided,” Knox said, referring to a recent coronavirus outbreak in Ketchikan that spread to other Southeast communities, including Sitka. “Protocols that were broken that really put Ketchikan at risk and ended up putting a lot of other communities at risk in Southeast Alaska. If that happens in some other community in regards to the cruise ships, are we able to react?”

Leach said he believed they would be able to react, but hoped that setting rules with cruise lines early on would reduce the need to.

The assembly approved the resolution unanimously, on first and final reading.

KCAW - Sitka

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

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