This week’s changes in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s requirements for resuming cruise ship operations drew positive reviews from three Alaskans involved with the cruise industry.
Lalanya Downs, senior director with Cruise Lines International Association Alaska wrote in an email to the Daily News that the CDC news is “encouraging,” and Ward Cove Dock Group President John Binkley said in an interview that he was “very excited” about the CDC’s new guidelines.
Ketchikan Visitors Bureau President and CEO Patti Mackey said in an interview Friday with the Daily News that she is “cautiously optimistic” about the new guidelines.
The CDC on Wednesday announced updates to its Conditional Sailing Order issued in October, which may offer a path for cruise ships to sail again in American waters by mid-summer.
A CDC letter sent to the cruise industry on Wednesday states that the agency acknowledges that “cruising will never be a zero-risk activity,” and outlines new guidelines that will allow cruises to resume safely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Among several guidelines included in the letter for cruise lines to follow is the most significant rule change, which addresses the increasingly vaccinated population.
Instead of the complex simulated voyages previously required as part of being allowed to again sail with passengers, cruises will be allowed to sail with 98% of crew members vaccinated and 95% of their passengers vaccinated.
Although large cruise ship visits to Alaska continue to be hindered by the federal Passenger Vessel Services Act that makes stops in a Canadian port necessary for ships traveling from the Lower 48 and Canada’s closure of ports through February 2022, reactions were positive about the CDC’s announcement among Alaska’s travel industry professionals.
Downs of CLIA Alaska wrote that the CDC change is currently “under review by our technical experts to understand its implications but overall this shows progression with the constructive dialogue we’ve been having.
“This is key to restarting cruising and we appreciate the commitment, just as we have had with other governments and health authorities in other regions,” Downs continued. “This shows that the voices of the cruise community, along with the tireless effort of Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, Congressman Young, and Governor Dunleavy are being heard and we are very grateful. There is more work to be done but we are confident we can resume safely and look forward to making a positive impact in Alaska when sailing can resume.”
The Alaska congressional delegation has been working at the federal level to pass legislation that would allow a work around to the PVSA, and have been lobbying the CDC to adjust its rules to allow the safe resumption of cruising in 2021.
The Ward Cove Dock Group has built a new two-berth dock in Ketchikan at the former Ketchikan Pulp Company mill site in partnership with Norwegian Cruise Lines. The project includes a large welcoming center and transportation hub, which are in the finishing stages.
Binkley, president of the Ward Cove Dock Group, said that the new focus on vaccinated crew and passengers by the CDC fits well for their partner company because NCL already has plans to cruise with 100% vaccinated people on board.
“I think that the CDC is now recognizing that if you have 100% vaccination of crew and passengers that the chances of an outbreak of some sort are really minimalized, and so it’s a whole other way to look at cruising,” Binkley said.
Additionally, he said, NCL plans to run ships at reduced passenger capacity and have “expanded their medical facilities onboard, they have ICU units onboard, they have additional medical personnel — highly trained, COVID-specific — all the medication for COVID-related illnesses if they were to have anybody, and they have quarantine areas as well.
“So, their plan is that if there is for some reason an outbreak, even with 100% vaccination, that nobody gets off the ship within the port communities of Alaska, that the passengers stay onboard until they get back to Seattle, and that’s were they are unloaded.”
He said, of the CDC announcement, “It’s a definite shift for the CDC. I believe that they’re now listening to the cruise lines and are looking at them seriously in terms of ‘How do we find a way to get back to safe cruising?’ Not just throwing up a wall and saying ‘No.’
“That’s a massive shift,” Binkley stated.
He also referred to the problem with the Canada stops.
“The thinking is that once the CDC — if there’s a path forward with the CDC — then I think in discussions they’ve had with Transport Canada, it’s probably going to be easier to work with them on a technical stop at least,” Binkley said.
He added, of the congressional delegation’s work as well as Dunleavy’s that “they know how important it is for the economy of Alaska and how, without a cruise season this summer, that it will have been over 30 months for businesses with no revenue and that’s difficult for any business to sustain.”
Patti Mackey said of the new CDC guidelines that, “at this point, there’s still a lot of hoops to jump through and there’s no guarantees.
She said she has heard optimism from Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, however. Sullivan was visiting Ketchikan Friday and Saturday.
Mackey said one positive thing she’s seen was that the CDC representatives have been meeting regularly with the cruise line representatives recently, something that hadn’t been happening previously.
Another bright spot was that a KVB member told her that on Friday a cruise line representative had reached out to that business to ask about its readiness to accept business if a ship does come to the Ketchikan port this summer.
“Their comment was that it was that this was a really encouraging sign, because it was the first time they’d been asked that question,” Mackey said.
Mackey struck a guarded tone as she summed up the situation, “This really is all about the cruise lines and the CDC at this point and we’re just kind of along for the ride.”