The discussion about how to welcome cruise ship passengers to Ketchikan during the COVID-19 pandemic continued at Thursday’s Ketchikan City Council meeting.
Although most larger cruise ships have canceled their 2020 visits to Southeast Alaska, several smaller ships still have scheduled sailings to the region.
Cruise ships carrying more than 250 passengers have been barred from operating through July 24 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current no-sail order.
The first cruise line planning to arrive in Ketchikan is the 175-passenger American Constellation. According to Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon, its first cruise, originally planned to dock in Ketchikan on June 22 has been canceled, making its first stop scheduled for June 30.
To accommodate the need for social distancing aboard the ship, the ship’s parent company American Cruise Lines has created a plan outlining several protocols to mitigate the risk of virus transmission between passengers and crew, including reducing its passenger load by 25%, which would make the ship’s maximum passenger count 130 people.
Other measures included in the company’s plan address testing, disinfection, quarantine and changes to the utilization of ship spaces.
At Thursday’s meeting, Amylon recounted information garnered during a teleconference earlier in the day between ACL representatives, Amylon and City of Ketchikan Port and Harbors Director Steve Corporon.
The cruise company’s representative, Amylon said, described the company as “very sensitive to the concerns that the port communities in Southeast Alaska have and that the draft of their plan is not the final plan.”
In a memo included in the City Council agenda packet, Corporon noted that the cruise line had met much of a list of criteria put forth by council members in the regular May 7 council meeting, but had not met the criteria for “enhanced coordination between cruise operators and local communities regarding health care capacity” or the “wearing of cloth masks whenever persons are off the vessel in local communities for shopping, tours, etc.”
Corporon did state that the company still was working on the draft plan and (are) is “willing to collaborate with us on further development of their plan.”
In Thursday’s meeting, Amylon said he advised ACL representatives that Southeast Alaska’s communities had been in conversations about how to safely welcome ACL ships. The ACL representatives replied that they understood that those conversations were important, and wanted to further communicate with those communities, and had canceled (ITS) the American Constellation’s earlier June sailing to allow more time for those communications.
“They’d like to take their time to make sure they can try to get this right,” Amylon told (Council) council members.
Ketchikan representatives also have been in communication with other Southeast Alaska communities through the Alaska Municipal League, and together, the group created a list of criteria that they wanted cruise lines to meet before docking in the region’s communities.
Two areas that Corporon identified in a memo included in the council agenda, where the cruise company’s criteria does not match those created by the Southeast Alaska municipal representatives were daily passenger testing and a financial commitment to the quarantine and transfer of sick passengers.
Council Member Sam Bergeron emphasized, in Thursday’s meeting, the importance of the testing of crew members and guests on the ships as central to ensuring maximum safety.
In answer to Council Member Janalee Gage’s question as to how many small ships were planning to dock in Ketchikan this season, Corporon said that there were three visits by ACL ships on the calendar, four by the National Geographic ship Sea Lion, eight by UnCruise lines and seven by Alaskan Dream ships.
Council Member Dick Coose said he supported working with the cruise lines to create protocols to allow them to visit Southeast Alaska’s communities, while also keeping an eye on the governor’s mandates as they evolve. Currently, there is a 14-day quarantine in place for all out-of-state visitors through June 2.
“I think we just need to move forward and see if we’ve got a plan we can work with by next meeting, if possible,” Coose said.
Council Member Emily Chapel encouraged people to “stay the course.”
She added that engaging with other Southeast communities has been an excellent strategy that should be continued. She also described the ACL plan for safety protocols as a “good start,” with room for improvement, but that the true financial benefits of allowing ships with small numbers of passengers that might not even spend as much as hoped in the communities must be weighed.
“My priorities are making sure that our kids can go to school in the fall,” she said. “If that’s going to be possible. Making sure that those boxes are checked.”
Bergeron emphasized again, his belief in the effectiveness of testing as the region considers welcoming tourists in 2020.
“I think testing is the key to all of this,” he said. “I think that testing is becoming more available, I think that if we can get folks tested and they’re shown to be negative, I don’t think they need to wait 14 days, I think we need to say ‘Welcome to Alaska.’ We need to learn to operate in the era of COVID-19 and to do it safely and responsibly.”
Coose reminded fellow council members that once the quarantine requirement is lifted, that there will be many other out-of-state visitors and workers besides cruise ship passengers and crew that will arrive.
“We’ve got to be careful what we do, how we affect independent businesses, not necessarily the cruise lines,” he said.
City of Ketchikan Bob Sivertsen addressed the yet-unsolved difficulty of making a plan for how any cruise ship passengers that might test positive for the virus while in transit would be moved safely off of the ship, as they would not be allowed to fly on commercial aircraft.
Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center Emergency Manager Abner Hoage described a few of the options if a person contracted the virus while on the ship in the region. The U.S. Coast Guard as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have to be advised of the case, he said, and decisions about where the person would be quarantined would be contingent on the condition of the patient.
Sivertsen also expressed questions about the cruise companies’ testing plans, including frequency of testing and the reliability of tests used. Another concern he brought up was one suggestion by the companies that shore activities would be limited to enhance social distancing, which would reduce the benefit to local businesses.
“What’s my benefit for accepting the risk and bringing potential COVID to the community?” he said local business owners might rightfully ask.
ACL is not looking for a fast decision by city leaders, Sivertsen said, but are looking for discussions to continue as safety protocols are established in order to allow its ships to sail in Southeast Alaska waters this season.
He also emphasized that as decisions are being made and plans are crafted to allow ships and commerce to move forward, complete avoidance of the virus is not the expected outcome.
“We do have to understand we’re not looking for zero,” he said, adding that it’s an impossible expectation until a vaccine is created.
Council members voted to defer the agenda item, which was created to provide direction for how Amylon and Corporon should respond to ACL’s request, for further discussion at the June 4 Council meeting,
Also at Thursday’s meeting, City of Ketchikan Assistant Manager Lacey Simpson outlined the steps that had been taken to further open the city’s facilities to the public. Although the offices have opened, staff still are required to use face masks when interacting with the public, and masks are provided for use by visiting community members as well.
“We’re going to stay this course for awhile,” she said, explaining that city managers have held a schedule of easing health protocols about two weeks behind the state’s schedule.
Amylon reported that the initial planning stages have begun to decide how federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act relief funds that are expected to be received by the city will be used. Three areas of focus have been developed: reimbursement for costs related to pandemic costs, aid for local businesses and mitigating loss of port funding.
Amylon also said that talks are planned in the first week of June between city staff, Ketchikan Gateway Borough staff, Cruise Lines International Association representatives, the owners of private docks, and leaders from Juneau and Skagway to discuss the plans by companies operating larger cruise ships.
“I think everybody’s working together, and I think it’s a good start,” Amylon said.
In response to the increased traffic that Amylon said the city’s docks have seen by locals recreating during the absence of cruise traffic, he said that the restrooms at Berth III will be opened, as well as those near Thomas Basin. That will also require the hiring of a few staff members, he said.
City officials also are working with area nonprofits to get far ahead of plans concerning July 4 festivities as well as the Blueberry Festival, Amylon said.
Also at Thursday’s meeting was a presentation by Ketchikan Public Library Director Pat Tully. about the library’s activities and responses during the shutdown caused by the pandemic.
Several items were passed unanimously in the consent calendar, including a contract for concrete work on the “Salmon Walk” fish ladder project, the hiring of a legal firm to assist in negotiations between the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center and the city, and a budget transfer to pay for the design of a Berth III improvement project.
The next City Council meeting is slated to be held at 7 p.m., June 4, at the Ted Ferry Civic Center, located at 888 Venetia Ave. Members of the public are invited to attend in person, with care taken to maintain social distancing.