New CDC guidance seen as ‘unworkable’ for cruise lines and small port communities

Removing the rock pinnacle should make it easier for cruise ships to dock at the Ketchikan's downtown docks.
Ketchikan’s berths 1 and 2 sit empty at the city’s downtown docks. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Federal public health authorities issued new guidance last week for how port communities and cruise lines can work to resume cruising in U.S. waters. But the cruise industry called the new rules “unworkable,” saying they may not be practical for small coastal communities.

Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement the rules are so murky “no clear path forward or timetable can be discerned.”

The trade group is calling on the feds to lift restrictions on cruising this month.

Others see the new CDC guidance as a step forward. Since late last year, the CDC gave little indication on how cruising should resume. Ketchikan Visitors Bureau President and CEO Patti Mackey said there are still a lot of unanswered questions, but the new guidance represents progress.

“I think that, at least, it’s a step in the right direction,” Mackey said. “They’ve identified some key things that we’ve all had questions about, particularly the community agreements with the cruise lines.”

Alaska’s U.S. Senate delegation also applauded the new guidance.

“There is still a lot of work for the cruise lines and our port communities to do to implement the CDC instructions issued today, but we are encouraged by (CDC Director) Dr. Walensky’s projections that, with this guidance and timely implementation of the next phases, we could see cruise ships in U.S. waters as early as mid-summer,” Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan said in a joint statement.

But for smaller towns that host big ships, the CDC’s requirements for responding to outbreaks may not be realistic.

Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Nils Andreassen said coastal communities already have very limited medical facilities for sick passengers or crew who might have to disembark in an emergency.

“I really worry about the capacity of especially our smaller ports to be able to do all the things that are outlined in that guidance,” Andreassen said.

At its height, Skagway welcomed nearly 1.5 million cruise passengers. But it doesn’t have a hospital or the infrastructure the CDC would require under the new guidance.

Skagway’s mayor, Andrew Cremata, said a community of around a thousand people can’t provide treatment for megaships that can carry four to five times the town’s population.

“The reality of the situation is: I look at the CDC guidelines that came out on Friday, and I’m throwing my hands in the air, because we can’t do that,” Cremata said.

He said he’s resigned to the idea cruises won’t return to Skagway in 2021. Instead, he’s focused on promoting independent tourism over the summer and hopes cruise ships return next year.

Whether cruise lines return to Alaska this summer remains an open question, but hope appears to be fading. The CDC requires cruise lines give 30 days’ notice before operators conduct a simulated voyage intended to test health protocols. The agency requires another 60-day waiting period before they’ll grant lines the right to set sail with paying passengers.

And Alaska’s international cruise vessels can’t sail between the Lower 48 and Alaska without a stop in British Columbia. But Canada has closed its ports and waters to cruise ships until at least next spring. A legislative workaround has found broad support from Alaska’s elected officials but so far gained little traction in Congress.

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