Juneau cruise line’s vaccine requirement could bring slice of normalcy for coastal communities

The Wilderness Adventurer, an Uncruise Adventures boat, tied up in Juneau on July 31, 2020.
The Wilderness Adventurer, an Uncruise Adventures boat, tied up in Juneau on July 31, 2020. On Aug. 1, the ship was the first tourism passenger ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jennifer Pemberton/KTOO)

One small Juneau cruise company will require all its passengers and crew to be vaccinated before making any trips to Alaska this year. That means passengers will be able to mingle and shop at port calls, which could be helpful for some struggling Southeast Alaska towns.

It’s a complete turnaround from the company’s policy just a month ago when UnCruise Adventures planned to keep passengers in a bubble away from Alaska communities. But CEO Dan Blanchard said widely available vaccines mean more freedom this summer.

“It brings back a measure — far from all — but it brings back a measure of normalcy,” Blanchard said.

It’s also a hopeful sign for coastal towns that rely on seasonal travelers for income.

Blanchard said he would be remiss in his responsibility to his crew if he didn’t require passengers take every available precaution against COVID-19.

“Our choice is, we have to be as safe as possible. And that means that if you’re 18 or older, you need to be vaccinated,” he said.

He said the requirement hasn’t diminished interest — fewer than 1% of his clients can’t get the vaccine and will wait to sail until 2022.

UnCruise Adventures attempted sailings last year but turned back to port when a passenger tested positive for the coronavirus. Blanchard said for his company, going another summer without sailings is unfathomable.

Cruising is one of Southeast Alaska’s main industries. Last year, UnCruise’s boat was the only cruise that came to the region and it only had 36 passengers. This year the company said it will bring 4,300 people to Alaska. That is orders of magnitude less than a typical year, but Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon said it’s still a good sign for local businesses.

“In our CARES Act funding, we gave lots of money to our business community to try and help businesses survive a summer without cruise ships,” she said.

“So hopefully, they have survived and they’ll be open to business. And we’ll look forward to seeing visitors walking on our streets and sidewalks shortly.”

Weldon said Alaska in general and Southeast Alaska, in particular, are safe places to visit and she’s supportive of the UnCruise decision to require vaccinations.

“We have done great in general to get ourselves vaccinated here, and to have folks coming in the community that are already vaccinated seems like an easy way to continue to keep general safe,” she said.

In the past two weeks, the bulk of COVID-19 cases in Juneau have been from out-of-state travelers. Juneau still offers testing for travelers and requires five days of strict social distancing upon arrival — unless you’ve been vaccinated.