First cruise ship to sail during pandemic turned back to Juneau with COVID-19 case

The Wilderness Adventurer, an UnCruise small ship, docked in Juneau
The Wilderness Adventurer, an UnCruise small ship, docked in Juneau on April 23, 2020. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

The first and only cruise ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the pandemic reported a positive case of COVID-19 on board Tuesday.

The Wilderness Adventurer, operated by Uncruise, left Juneau on a weeklong trip Saturday.

According to Uncruise CEO Dan Blanchard, all passengers were required to get tested for COVID-19 up to five days before traveling to Alaska and boarding the boat.

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A passenger from the Lower 48 was tested four days before flying to Juneau and had arrived with a negative test result in hand, the company said. It was a second test at the Juneau airport that showed the passenger was positive.

The state of Alaska called the passenger with the test result on Tuesday. The boat was in a wilderness area at the time, but some passengers had cell phone reception. All passengers were then quarantined in their cabins until the ship returned to Juneau Wednesday morning.

In a Wednesday morning call with reporters Blanchard said most of the Wilderness Adventurer’s guests arrived in Juneau the day of the trip. The passenger who tested positive arrived around noon, he said. Uncruise rented out a private dining room at a local restaurant [local: the Hangar ballroom] to use as an “isolation area” prior to guests boarding the ship. This passenger was there by 3:00 or 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, according to Blanchard.

The vessel returned to Juneau Wednesday morning and by 7:30 a.m. the first batch of the ship’s 36 passengers were checked-in to a local hotel for quarantine. The 30 crew members will quarantine on the vessel.

The person who tested positive, along with their immediate travel companions, were tested on board and those tests are off to the lab, the company said. The ship was carrying enough COVID-19 saliva test kits to test everyone on board twice.

Testing of all passengers might not happen immediately. The testing protocol is sometimes to wait for the viral load of infected people to increase for a few days in order to ensure a positive result from an infected person.

The trip was scheduled to depart and return to Juneau and not scheduled to stop in any communities.

Uncruise has canceled the four other sailings it had scheduled for this summer in Alaska. The state’s travel mandate for out-of-state visitors requires a negative test result within three days of departing for Alaska and it will not be testing out-of-state travelers at the airport for free. Blanchard says those changes went into his decision to cancel the other trips.