Smaller cruise ship companies are planning socially distanced trips for Southeast Alaska even as COVID-19 cases in the region are on the rise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down most of the tourist season in Southeast Alaska, but some companies are still planning limited voyages for the latter part of the summer. Most of the larger cruise lines have canceled their seasons entirely, but smaller cruise lines are trying to work with local municipalities to find a balance between public health and economics.
“We have to work symbiotically,” Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata said Monday in a phone interview. “It’s challenging and they’re working on a shortened timeline. If we move forward we want to do so in a way that is done with the health and financials.”
Cremata said two Skagway Borough Assembly members were working with American Cruise Lines to craft health protocols for visits to small Southeast communities. Places like Skagway have limited health infrastructure and the ability to respond to an outbreak, Cremata said, and cruise companies needed to understand that as they developed their own guidelines.
“It seems like they really took everything into consideration,” Cremata said. “They understand our limitations as far as response.”
However, in some cases, social distancing meant passengers wouldn’t be going to the local shops and restaurants that depend on tourists for their livelihood.
“If they’re not going into the community, why would we take any risk?” Cremata said. “That’s an Assembly decision that will have to be made.”
American presented their protocols to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly but no action was taken, according to City Manager Rorie Watt. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough voted to affirm American’s plan, but the Assembly didn’t feel that was necessary, Watt said.
There are also small, adventure cruise tours planning to operate in Southeast this summer, but those companies were less of a health concern because those passengers tended to have far less interaction with the local population, Cremata said.
UnCruise Alaska said in a news release it had voyages planned out of Juneau beginning Aug. 1. The company has posted its health protocols to its website.
CEO Dan Blanchard said in a news release the company was working under “the new normal.”
“The market is showing a growing interest in off-the-beaten-path destinations and that is what we do best,” Blanchard said.
But UnCruise doesn’t carry as many passengers. With the larger cruise lines like American planning to bring 170 passengers for shore excursions for multiple communities in Southeast, the plans for health protocols get far more complicated Cremata said.
Skagway and Ketchikan hired a private consultant to draft health protocols specific to Southeast Alaska. But those guidelines will be for the typical cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers expected to return in 2021, for now, municipalities will have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, Cremata said.
A survey of Southeast port communities conducted by the Alaska Municipal League found broad agreement among local leaders who expected companies to have robust health plans in place before traveling to Alaska, according to a June 4, memo.
In the event of a health emergency, Juneau could close its ports, Watt said.
Alaska has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases in the past weeks, and the Department of Health and Social Services announced Monday four cases involving nonresidents in Southeast communities.
Also Monday, the state reported six new cases of COVID-19 involving Alaska residents.
The new cases were distributed among Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and North Slope Borough with three cases, two cases and one cases respectively, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Service’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Six new cases is the lowest single-day increase since June 15, according to DHSS data.
DHSS reported no cases for residents of Juneau or Southeast Alaska.
A visitor to the Wrangell-Petersburg Census area tested positive, according to DHSS, and three seafood industry workers in the Haines Borough also tested positive.
Ben Hohenstatt contributed reporting to this article.
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