Cruise tourism’s restart after a nearly two-year hiatus is bringing hope for a revived economy in Southeast — but also safety concerns on ship and shore.
Nearly a dozen passengers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of large cruise ships’ return to Alaska.
Still, fully-vaccinated cruise passengers have not shown symptoms beyond those of a mild cold, according to cruise companies. And port cities report climbing case counts come from residents, not tourists.
KTOO’s Claire Stremple spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about Southeast Alaska’s 2021 COVID-19 cruise season.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Claire Stremple: In the last week, there have only been about nine COVID-19 cases on cruise ships. Cruise ships are requiring vaccinations.
But the Celebrity Millennium reported a first breakthrough case — that’s a COVID-19 case in a vaccinated person — that was discovered over the weekend. That was the first case detected on a large cruise ship.
That was followed by seven cases on an UnCruise boat — that’s a small local cruise adventurer company. And those people were also fully vaccinated, per the company’s policy.
Yesterday, another case was reported on American Cruise Lines’ American Constellation, and that’s the small cruise boat that got hit with a cluster of over a dozen cases earlier this month.
So, cruises are finding these cases because they test anyone with symptoms.
Casey Grove: How bad have the symptoms been, and how are the patients being treated?
Claire Stremple: Cruise lines are reporting only mild, cold-like symptoms so far. Remember, these people are vaccinated, so they have some defense against the virus.
Casey Grove: What are the folks in cruise port communities saying about this?
Claire Stremple: Officials are saying they expected some cases to come with this season. For example, Skagway is one of the remote communities hardest hit by the last year and a half without cruising. They got their first big boat, the Celebrity Millennium, in there on Tuesday. That’s the ship that reported a positive case in Juneau on Monday. That passenger was medevaced out of town. They’re no longer on the ship. But Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata says he’s encouraging folks to wear their masks.
Andrew Cremata: I think it’s perfectly normal to expect that there are going to be COVID cases. The question is: Have the proper precautions been taken to ensure the spread is minimalized — and the community, the passengers onboard the vessel, are protected? That has been the real work over the last year and a half.
Claire Stremple: Again, these cases are mostly ending up in Juneau. The infected passengers from UnCruise are isolating in a Juneau hotel. And the infected crew is isolating onboard the UnCruise vessel in Juneau’s port. Juneau officials maintain there’s minimal risk to the community. They say none of the passengers have circulated in Juneau as tourists.
Casey Grove: What does it say about the safety of either going on a cruise or the risk of exposure to Alaskans? Is this indicative of further spread?
Claire Stremple: It’s a little too soon to tell. Large cruise lines have been back for only a week. They’ve reported one case. Smaller lines have been on the water longer and have reported more cases. The cruise numbers still look good compared to statewide or nationwide averages.
In Juneau, the last two weeks have been the biggest COVID weeks since the beginning of the pandemic. But Juneau Deputy City Manager Robert Barr says those cases aren’t from cruises.
Robert Barr: The main risk is not from cruise ships, and not from tourists. The significant majority of cases that we’re seeing are among our residents. And as we’re able to contact trace those investigations, it’s clear that they’re not coming from tourism.
Casey Grove: Okay, Claire, are cruises to Alaska at risk because of all this?
Claire Stremple: There’s no sign of that so far. And so far, that seems to be a municipality-level decision. In Juneau, there’s no hard-and-fast threshold where the city will cancel cruises. Official say they’re taking things on a case-by-case basis.