City working through ‘what ifs’ as the Westerdam — and cruise ship season — makes its way toward Juneau

Passengers walk a downtown Juneau dock where three cruise ships are tied up June 11, 2017. (Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)

When Juneau residents learned that Holland America’s Westerdam would be arriving in Juneau early to wait for the start of the summer season, the reaction was immediate.

City leaders say they received hundreds of emails and phone calls from the public. People wanted to know why the ship was coming here, what it would do once it arrived and how the city could be sure there were no cases of COVID-19 on board.

At a special Juneau Assembly meeting Monday night, a panel of public health experts and cruise officials tried to address as many of the outstanding questions about the Westerdam and the upcoming cruise season as possible.

In February, Holland America’s ship Westerdam was turned away from multiple Asian ports — not because there were any confirmed cases of coronavirus disease on board, but because countries were reacting to news of the Diamond Princess, which was at the time a floating quarantine off the coast of Japan.

Ralph Samuels, an executive with Holland America, told the assembly that the only Westerdam passenger who tested positive for coronavirus was an 83-year-old woman. And the company believes it was a false positive.

“She tested negative a couple days after that and proceeded to test negative every time,” Samuels said.

They ended up testing every single passenger and crew member on board.

“There were 2257 people. They all got tested. There was one positive, for two days,” Samuels said.

That was more than a month ago. The Westerdam is now crossing the Pacific. It’s scheduled to reach Honolulu March 16, where it will stop for customs and to resupply before continuing on to Alaska.

Some crew members got off the ship in the Philippines, but the remaining people have not left the boat since Feb. 19, when the last passengers left.

“So this crew, by the time the crew gets to Juneau, they will have all been tested and all been on the ship for a month,” Samuels said.

The ship will dock at the private AJ dock, which Holland America partially owns. The dock does not have hookups for electricity, so the ship will run on fuel while it’s in port.

For the roughly three weeks it’s in Juneau, the ship will be hooked up to city water and pump out graywater — non-hazardous runoff from sinks and showers. They’re not planning to pump any sewage into the city’s system.

As for trash, that’s going to get offloaded in Honolulu. Samuels said Holland America was not happy to learn its ships and those of other companies have been dumping trash in Juneau’s landfill.

It’s not yet clear exactly how many crew will be on board when the ship arrives, but Samuels estimates it’s between 500 and 700 people. Samuels said no crew will change out in Hawaii and he does not believe any crew will depart in Juneau.

But the crew will be allowed off the ship. Samuels said they’ve already received offers from community members who want to show crew members around.

“They kind of want to be a welcoming committee before the hubbub of the summer gets going to show off their town to these folks that have been bobbing around the sea for quite some time,” he said.

City Manager Rorie Watt said there are a lot of unknowns right now, including how travel warnings about taking cruises from federal officials will impact business.

As of now, dozens of ships are expected to bring 1.4 million passengers to Juneau this summer.

“The Westerdam will leave and around a week and a half after that the first ship of the season is scheduled to arrive,” Watt said. “That April 24 date is coming very fast.”

The city is discussing many possible scenarios with federal and state partners, including whether it would be possible to close the port to prevent the arrival of a ship carrying coronavirus.

Mike Tibbles with Cruise Lines International Association Alaska said the industry is continuing to update its prevention policies according to directions from national and international health agencies. That includes things like pre-screening passengers based on their recent travel history and any existing symptoms prior to their trips.

“All CLIA members are required to have medical professionals on board and available 24/7,” Tibbles said. “All CLIA members are also required to have a well-equipped health facility which meets certain guidelines. And those guidelines include the ability to isolate passengers.”

Bartlett Regional Hospital has stocked up on extra supplies and is preparing to respond to a potential coronavirus outbreak locally.

Even still, Watt said many “what ifs” remain as cruise season approaches.

“We are not ready today like we need to be on April 24,” he said. “We are not.”

The Grand Princess, which regularly visits Juneau, is due to arrive May 12. That ship is is now quarantined in Oakland, California, after a number of passengers tested positive for COVID-19. Princess Cruises canceled its next scheduled sailing to Hawaii. The company has not yet said whether the ship’s Alaska season will go on as planned.