Alaska’s cruise ship season begins in April, and that’s making a lot of people anxious in port towns that have, so far, been untouched by the COVID-19 virus.
For now, the response from state and federal public health authorities is based around prevention, quick detection and small-scale containment. But if certain officials decide an Alaska-bound ship threatens public health, they could take extraordinary measures.
Deb Rodriguez is a Juneau resident and retiree. She found out that Holland America Line had canceled sailings in Asia for their ship, the Westerdam, over coronavirus concerns. And now, the Westerdam’s coming to Juneau early.
“I mean, my first reaction is, why, when other countries have turned it away? … Who made this decision?” Rodriguez said. “And was this decision thought through? Do we have what we need?”
Rodriguez said those aren’t rhetorical questions; she earnestly wants officials to address them. She said more transparency about the safeguards and precautions around the Westerdam and the cruise ship season in general would go a long way to quiet her fears.
But reactions around the coronavirus and coming cruise season run the gamut. Some seasonal tourism workers are at peace with the risk, because they already take precautions for norovirus and other infectious diseases that spread similarly. Some said they’re more worried about the impact on their wages and tips.
Others think officials should be discussing a total shutdown of cruise ship traffic in Alaska ports.
In Juneau, Mayor Beth Weldon said she’s keeping an eye on the coronavirus situation, but she doesn’t see it as a local political issue at this point.
“We’re letting the experts make the plans at this time, and then we’ll review the plans as we need to at the Assembly level,” she said.
Weldon said the city’s public health and public safety experts are getting together regularly to prepare.
But back to Rodriguez’s question: Who decides if a cruise ship can come in or not? Normally, for the entirety of Southeast Alaska, there’s one Coast Guard officer with the authority to make that call. His name is Stephen White, and he’s the “captain of the port.”
The Coast Guard’s public information office for Alaska said White would not be available for an interview. The Coast Guard didn’t answer written questions about what goes into the captain of the port’s decision making. Coast Guard spokesperson Melissa McKenzie said my questions had been forwarded to a subject matter expert, but that she had not heard back.
However, White did meet with a visitor industry task force in January to explain his role with cruise ships. This was before coronavirus had spread around the globe.
“We do have some regulatory authorities and responsibilities that are laid down in law. And they’re vast and they’re complex,” he said.
Broadly, he said he has the authority to stop vessel traffic and target specific ships from coming or going.
“But it’s supposed to be used judiciously. Not for day-to-day management,” White said. “This is like, ‘Hey, we’re closing the port because of the hurricane. Or there’s a security threat coming. Or this particular vessel is a threat if it gets underway.’”
White said he can also penalize people who don’t follow the captain of the port’s authority.
Ships generally have the right under the U.S. Constitution to come and go. The state and municipal governments have some room to regulate them, too. But they’re not supposed to create undue burdens. Juneau’s municipal attorney, Robert Palmer, outlined the limits of these rights and powers in a legal memo for local officials in January.
Coronavirus aside, cruise ship crews and state health officials already have regular practices for identifying and containing illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a lot of detailed guidance for cruise ship travelers and workers. It gets down into stuff like how to handle dirty laundry and how much alcohol should be in hand sanitizers.
But if someone’s visibly sick with COVID-19 symptoms or other illnesses, a ship’s crew is required to report it to the CDC.
So that’s what’s going on under normal circumstances. What about abnormal circumstances?
“If there is a large disease outbreak of a contagious disease, that could trigger an emergency,” said Palmer said. “And when that happens, there are super-broad powers that can be authorized or assumed depending on whatever’s reasonable and necessary to protect the people. … What some of those powers can include: restricting access to areas that are believed to be highly infected — whether it’s a building, or an area of town, or a structure or a ship — that part doesn’t probably matter as much.”
Municipal, state or federal officials could — separately or in coordination with each other — invoke various emergency powers that could affect a ship’s access to Alaska’s port towns. Palmer’s department is on Monday’s agenda of a Juneau Assembly committee meeting to discuss the scope and authority of disaster declarations.
If the governor declares a public health disaster, state law says the commissioner of the Department of Health and Social Services gets a lot of extra powers, too. Then, the commissioner could compel evacuations and closures, destroy public health hazards, restrict people’s movement, even take over funeral homes to dispose of bodies.
We’re not there. And Deb Rodriguez said she’s not freaking out.
“For myself, I’m fine,” she said. “I feel like I have everything I need if I needed to be in my house for two weeks because I had the flu or if I had some kind of symptoms. I would be able to take care of myself.
She is concerned about the overall situation, but doesn’t want to live in fear.