CDC may allow cruises by mid-summer; Canada issue remains

  • An Alaska Railroad passenger train passes a cruise ship docked in Whittier. While the Centers for Disease Control has signaled it may allow cruising to resume by mid-summer, but Alaska’s season will depend on solving the current ban on large ships stopping in Canada to satisfy a 19th Century federal law. (Photo/Courtesy/Alaska Railroad Corp.)

The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation insist their efforts to clear the way for large cruise ships to return to Alaska waters this year are gaining momentum despite little movement of legislation likely need to finish the work.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan took to the Senate floor April 29 to pitch the rest of the body on the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, their legislation to temporarily exempt cruises between Washington and Alaska from the 19th Century Passenger Vessel Services Act.

Murkowski said an amended version of the bill first submitted in early March addresses broader cruise consumer protection concerns raised by Democrats and passing it posthaste would help salvage what can be from this year’s summer cruise season.

“Back home right now people are not talking about the season for 2021 coming up; the motto is ‘get through to ’22.’ That’s an awful way to be approaching our situation,” Murkowski said, adding that she’s not trying to save the global cruise lines, but rather the businesses in Alaska that rely on their arrival.

“It’s jobs; it’s livelihoods and it really is what allows our small communities to keep their doors open,” she said of the tourism industry.

The CDC took another step towards loosening its restrictions on domestic cruises April 28 with a letter to industry leaders from U.S. Public Health Service Maritime Unit Capt. Aimee Treffiletti, who is leading the agency’s maritime COVID-19 response, which states that CDC officials acknowledge “cruising will never be a zero-risk activity” and provides further guidance for cruise companies submitting operating plans for review to federal health officials.

“We remain committed to the resumption of passenger operations in the United States following the requirements in the (Conditional Sail Order) by mid-summer, which aligns with the goals announced by many major cruise lines,” Treffiletti wrote, adding agency officials are looking forward to reviewing the initial operating plans and moving to the next phase of the Conditional Sail Order soon.

The million-plus cruise passengers that arrived to Alaska via the Inside Passage accounted for more than half of the total visitors to the state in most pre-pandemic years and provided the foundation for one of the state’s handful of growing industries in recent years.

Pre-2020, the leisure and hospitality industry had become one of the state’s largest employment sectors, but lost nearly 15,000 jobs last year, according to state Labor Department figures.

The lack of visitors has also hit many local governments hard. According to City and Borough of Juneau officials, the lack of cruise ship and passenger fees and taxes totaled roughly $26 million in forgone revenue last year.

The PVSA requires foreign built, crewed or flagged passenger vessels sailing between U.S. ports to make at least one stop in a foreign port and cruise lines typically used a Canadian port — most often Vancouver — as a stop en route our a starting point for Alaska-bound voyages to comply.

However, the Feb. 4 announcement by Canadian transportation officials that they would not be allowing large cruise ships to dock in the country’s ports again this summer disrupted plans for a return to more normal sailings.

Alaska’s senators were initially critical of the Canadians’ handling of the situation and Murkowski said they have since tried to find alternatives to the outright ban but also noted that Canada “is in a different spot in terms of their vaccines,” an indication the country’s requisite officials might not be ready to ease their maritime travel restrictions.

According to the Canadian government’s COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker online dashboard, approximately 34 percent of Canadians had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of May 4, compared to 44 percent of Americans and 51 percent of Alaskans, according to Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health and Social Services data.

Sullivan spokesman Nate Adams wrote in response to questions about the hurdles facing the Alaska cruise industry that flexibility from Canadian officials on their docking restrictions isn’t likely given the country’s own challenges in managing COVID-19, but it’s also imperative that the Department of Homeland Security provide clarity over what voyage options would meet the exact requirements of the Passenger Vessel Services Act while making sure operations match any potential scrutiny in Canada’s exemption process.

Washington Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell, who Murkowski had a largely positive relationship with during their years together on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, now chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act but has not yet officially heard it.

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Borger wrote via email May 4 that while a request to move the bill through unanimous consent was rejected, there is general consensus among the key players that an agreement needs to be reached.

According to Borger, allowing cruise ships back to Alaska is the top priority in the senator’s office right now and Murkowski is working multiple angles, including a continued dialogue with Canadian officials to see if they can “meet us halfway,” she wrote.

Sullivan implored Alaskans dependent upon cruise passengers for their businesses to keep hope alive in his floor remarks.

“Right now, here on the Senate floor, there’s actually been momentum and movement, and I’m confident we can get there,” Sullivan said of the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. “Even with the CDC, we are starting to see progress with them. We are going to continue to fight and continue to try to move this. Do not give up, Alaska, on our summer tourism season. We haven’t. To the contrary, we’ve made progress. We’re not there yet.”

Alaska’s state and federal lawmakers have also been critical of the CDC’s seemingly slow movement towards allowing cruise voyages in U.S. waters and Gov. Mike Dunleavy directed Department of Law officials to join a lawsuit filed by the State of Florida against the CDC last month.

Murkowski praised CDC leaders for the updated guidance in a May 1 statement and said agency officials have been more responsive to the Alaska delegation and industry of late.

“The CDC has committed to working with us to address any guidelines that may be too restrictive for Alaskans,” Murkowski said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, but understanding what has to happen for cruise ships to sail is a step in the right direction.”

Whether it can all come together quickly enough for the companies to be ready to sail when the time comes is still unclear. The first cruise ships of the year typically arrive in Ketchikan in the last days of April and industry representatives have consistently said they would need at least 8 to 10 weeks to re-crew and prepare the ships for sailing from the time they have clearance to sail. The last ships arrive in Southeast in September most years.

On the House side, Rep. Don Young’s spokesman Zack Brown wrote that the most likely avenue to holding a semblance of a summer cruise season this year is for the CDC to lift its sailing restrictions. According to Brown, if the CDC lifts its sailing restrictions, Canada would very likely be pressured into allowing “technical calls” on its ports to satisfy the PVSA.

“Congressman Young is running parallel efforts on this front, not only trying to get the CDC to lift their ban, but to convince Canadian officials to update their restrictions as well. Southeast families’ livelihoods hang in the balance,” Brown wrote.

“The Congressman calls on the CDC and the Canadian government to trust the science behind vaccines and mitigation strategies and to allow the cruise season to commence in some form.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/05/2021 - 10:37am