Sitka’s COVID outbreak unlikely to affect arrival of Alaska’s first large commercial cruise since 2019

The Royal Caribbean ship Serenade of the Seas approaches Ketchikan during a test cruise with volunteer passengers on July 9. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

A growing COVID-19 outbreak in Sitka is not likely to affect Wednesday’s arrival of Alaska’s first large cruise ship to bring commercial passengers since 2019.

Royal Caribbean officials put out a statement Tuesday touting the Serenade of the Seas’ 7-day cruise to Alaska.

Sitka emergency operations center Incident Commander Craig Warren said Tuesday afternoon that, as far as he knows, the stop in Sitka is a go.

“We have contacted them and talked with them regarding the ship coming in tomorrow with our high COVID case count here,” Warren said. “And as it stands right now, they are still planning on coming in.”

That’s despite at least 175 active cases of COVID-19 in the community of less than 9,000 people.

Royal Caribbean executive Russell Benford said earlier this month that the cruise line monitors COVID-19 activity in the ports that it visits, and may adjust its itinerary.

“We’ve seen places around the world that are experiencing a spike. We have conversations internally, we have thresholds and protocols in place. And so if we feel like for the safety of our guests, our crew and the community, we need to bypass, we can do that. But that’s a conversation we’ll have with each of the communities. It won’t be a decision that we make in a vacuum, it’ll be in the context of communication and collaboration,” Benford said at an event commemorating the arrival of the Serenade’s test cruise in Ketchikan on July 9.

The line is requiring all passengers 16 and up to be fully vaccinated for its July cruises to Alaska. From August onward, the cruise line will require passengers 12 and older to be vaccinated.

Nearly everyone aboard the Serenade of the Seas — 97% of passengers and crew — is vaccinated, Royal Caribbean said in a statement Tuesday.

That means few restrictions for most passengers while in port. Fully vaccinated guests are free to book independent shore excursions or stroll through town without a tour group. Groups that include unvaccinated people — like families with kids — will be required to purchase tours through the cruise line.

Some have worried that high COVID-19 infection rates in Alaska port communities could lead to canceled port calls or restrictions on visitors. Small cruise ship operator UnCruise canceled two planned port calls in Ketchikan in May, citing a spike in cases in the community.

Cruise lines were required by Centers for Disease Control rules to coordinate with local authorities in the communities they visit. But Sitka’s EOC commander Craig Warren says the agreements are designed to protect communities from infected ships — not the other way around.

“In our port agreements, the multi-port agreement that Ketchikan also signed on to, we had put in there that the local health authority could turn a boat away if it had an outbreak,” he said. “But there was nothing regarding the opposite, turning away a boat for a large outbreak in the community.”

The inaugural 2021 voyage will go from Sitka to Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point, then on to Juneau and Ketchikan before returning to Seattle next week.

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