A fishing vessel is dwarfed by the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl in Juneau’s downtown harbor in September 2014. Before cruise ships can sail to Alaska this summer, they must enter into a port agreement, which outlines health and safety terms. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

CBJ authorizes city manager to enter port agreements with cruise lines

CDC requires agreed-upon health and safety standards for cruises

With news that large cruise ships will sail to Southeast Alaska later this summer, the City and Borough of Juneau is working to ensure that all port requirements are in place, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One of the CDC requirements is that ports and cruise lines sign a port agreement outlining important health and safety terms related to COVID-19.

On Monday night, assembly members unanimously authorized city manager Rorie Watt to enter into the required agreements on behalf of the City and Borough of Juneau.

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Watt told the assembly that communities in Southeast Alaska are working together to create one regionwide agreement to set a single standard for the ships that will visit.

“As a matter of practicality and efficiency, the region is working together,” Watt said.

What’s required

Before a ship can visit the port of Juneau, specific requirements must be met. Based on the current draft, ships are required to provide a schedule in advance and comply with CDC-outlined COVID vaccination requirements for crew and passengers. Currently, the CDC requires a 95% vaccination rate for passengers and crew. However, many cruise lines are requiring all crew and passengers to be vaccinated.

“Ships are pivoting to 100% vaccinated crew and passengers because it markets and sells well,” Watt said.

He explained that each ship has slightly different plans to deal with any infected passengers, with some holding space on board to quarantine and isolate and others planning to use medevac services to transport sick patients. Watt noted that there would only be seven-day cruises this season, which makes it “low likelihood that a vaccinated passenger or crew could need medical care.”

The assembly has the discretion to add other conditions to the port agreement. However, assembly members did not add any at the meeting.

US House passes bill that could allow an Alaska cruise season

Watt said the agreement is flexible if CDC guidance changes or if the city’s COVID situation deteriorates.

“In reality, with the very high vaccination standard, the port agreements have become a somewhat perfunctory step in a large, complicated process,” Watt said to the assembly in a memo shared before the meeting.

Assembly member Loren Jones urged Watt to make the final agreements public, and Watt agreed.

“We are giving you the authority to sign the agreement, but they all need to come back and be made public,” Jones said. “If it’s a 10-page exhibit, it needs to be public, or people will think we are hiding something.”

Family cruises?

Watt said that cruise lines that cater to families had approached him about the possibility of offering cruises with lower vaccination rates so that children under age 12, who are not authorized to be vaccinated, could sail along with their families. The CDC recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 and clinical trials are underway for younger children. Though the timeline for approval is unknown, most experts expect approval to be granted later this year.

Watt explained that the CDC allows cruise ships sailing with passengers and crew members with lower vaccination rates to receive clearance to operate if they embark upon a trial cruise with volunteers to shake out the vessel’s COVID protocols.

Watt asked the assembly if they were interested in pursuing a port agreement with ships offering family cruises.

Assembly members commented that they lacked the expertise to provide that guidance, but they are willing to learn more.

“If they can demonstrate that they can do it, I’d consider it.,” said Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski, summing up the consensus. “If you ask me today, I’d say no. But, I’m willing to listen.”

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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