First cruise ship in 3 years docks in Haines, where residents worry about COVID coming ashore too

People disembark from a cruise ship on a sunny day
Passengers disembark from the Serenade of the Seas in Haines on May 12, 2022. It was the first ship to visit Haines since 2019. (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

Haines welcomed its first large cruise ship last week since September 2019. It marks the start of what could be a record-breaking cruise season for Upper Lynn Canal communities. But with little public data about COVID-19 cases on ships, some community members worry that the cruise ships could also bring a surge in coronavirus cases.

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The town’s Deputy Mayor Cheryl Stickler welcomed passengers as they got off the Serenade of the Seas last Thursday.

“You’re the first large cruise ship we’ve been able to host since September 18, 2019. That’s only 967 days,” she said laughing. “Or two years, seven months and 27 days.”

The ship’s captain, Kjell Nordmo thanked borough officials as they exchanged gifts: a model of the ship and a plaque commemorating the Serenade’s first-ever visit to Haines.

“Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality, during this inaugural call to Haines,” he said.

Haines book store owner Amy Kane said after two years of pandemic and no large cruise ships it’s a much needed boost to small businesses.

“So, it was challenging to build up for it and to find staff for it,” she said. “But I’m glad I made it. I feel like I just made it to the starting line really after two years.”

But Kane said she’s concerned that cruise passengers could bring a surge in COVID-19 cases to small communities like Haines.

“It’s definitely nerve-racking,” she said. “Because, yeah, people I mean, just travelers in general, pose a higher risk. Having more people here, having the town size, or population double in one day or whatever, depending on how full the ships are, is a lot. I do feel like we’re gonna see a spike in numbers.”

A Royal Caribbean spokesperson said in an email that the cruise line requires passengers ages 12 and older to be vaccinated, and show a negative PCR test before sailing. Children younger than 12 are required to test twice. And all crew are required to be vaccinated.

But that doesn’t mean the ships are COVID-free.

Jim Goettler of Washington state was on the Serenade of the Seas. His son and daughter-in-law tested positive for COVID-19 during their trip. He and his wife tested positive after the trip.

He said he and his family were vaccinated and completed a proctored antigen test prior to sailing but no one from the cruise line checked their results before boarding. He said he saw very few COVID mitigation measures like masks on the ship, and there was crowding, such as in elevators. He said the cruise line should offer rapid testing before disembarking to avoid spreading COVID to small Southeast communities.

“You’re having people walk around town, who are probably, large numbers are infected. And even if you have a minor case, we all know, you’re still very contagious,” he said. “So it’s like, come on, guys. Let’s get this together. Let’s test before we get off the ship. It only takes a few minutes.”

Royal Caribbean did not respond to inquiries about how many passengers tested positive on this Serenade sailing. Cruise lines are required to report COVID data to state authorities, but little data is publicly available.

Goettler said his son reported his positive results to the cruise line and Royal Caribbean offered to reimburse COVID-positive passengers for meals after their cruise of up to $100 per day, not exceeding 10 days. Royal Caribbean did not respond to requests for comment.

Haines tourism director Steven Auch said the cruise lines have agreements with port communities that include COVID protocols, sanitation requirements and a commitment that, if there is an outbreak, passengers would be medevaced to Seattle.

Auch said Haines does not have COVID requirements but local businesses and residents can take precautionary measures.

“If you look at tour operators, a lot of them require masking on the buses for transportation. So, you know, every business has its own opportunity to take whatever steps it feels is necessary,” he said.

Auch echoed state public health officials who recommend COVID vaccinations, masking indoors and social distancing where possible.

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