By Gretchen Wehmhoff

“It’s like the cruise ships are a moving target,” said local business owner Carol Bourcy.

With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintaining no sail orders in the United States, and Canada denying large passenger vessels access to their ports, the ships normally headed up the Inside Passage are setting sail to other destinations.

It’s not for lack of trying. Alaska’s congressional delegation has been in contact with Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata and mayors in other port towns. Lawmakers have submitted legislation that would temporarily lift the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (PVSA). There is no word on the success of these attempts.

Lifting the PVSA would allow foreign flagged ships to sail directly between two U.S. ports, bypassing Canada. Currently, per the PVSA, foreign flagged vessels sailing from an American port such as Seattle or Los Angeles must dock at a foreign port before continuing on to another American port. With Canada’s ports and waters closed to large ships, there is little chance cruise ships will sail to Alaska.

Cremata has been preparing the town for the bleak reality. “Now that April is upon us, it’s extremely unlikely any large vessels will be coming to Alaska this year,” he said.

This is after the entire 2020 season was lost without tourist traffic from land or sea. The Canadian border is expected to remain closed, cutting off any road travel from the Lower 48, Yukon and other parts of Alaska. 

Time is ticking by and the sails are in the doldrums.

Staffing and preparing a ship for sailing takes a few months, and time is running out as the short Alaska summer and tourist season approaches. The odds are not in favor of a significant, if any, 2022 season.

“It’s not impossible, but improbable,” says Cremata in his mayor’s report to the assembly April 1.

And then there’s the fine print.  

On April 2, the CDC modified its technical specifications for cruise ship operators’ mandatory agreements with port and local health authorities. The updates just about eliminate communities such as Skagway due to the mandated medical facility requirements. 

Buried in the Medical Components of the agreement between a cruise ship operator and the local port and health authorities are requirements for high hospital bed capacity on shore to isolate patients with COVID-19.

One of many paragraphs in the technical instructions for ships and ports reads, “The cruise ship operator must document that its contractual shoreside medical facilities or healthcare systems either singularly or collectively have enough medical capacity in the judgment of the local health authorities to care for travelers if an unanticipated outbreak of COVID-19 occurs on board its ships. The cruise ship operator’s contractual shoreside medical facilities or healthcare systems should have enough bed capacity for both potential intensive care and non-intensive care needs, as well as enough capacity to isolate patients with COVID-19.”

In addition to the facility and healthcare systems, the CDC update requires the availability of mental health services, pharmacy delivery, shoreside housing with separate ventilation and other essential services.

Skagway, a community of less than 1,000, does not have a hospital. Pharmacy and mental health services are not designed to accommodate large numbers much beyond the local population.

Cruise lines haven’t given up on sailing, but the battle is uphill when trying to resurrect the U.S. schedule.

 According to Cruise Industry News, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), which is starting its season with cruises from the Dominican Republic, Greece and Jamaica, submitted a proposal  to the CDC asking the agency to lift the Conditional Sail Order in time for their July 4 cruise schedule to and from U.S. ports.  

In the proposal, NCL says passengers embarking from the U.S. ports and disembarking to the U.S. must have proof of full vaccination no less than two weeks prior to the cruise. All crew members will be vaccinated. 

Cremata said the Cruise Line International Association sent a letter requesting the CDC lift the no sail order.  The response came back later that day “with a resounding no,” he said.

Skagwegians started marketing to individual travelers through the Save Our Skagway program. Several businesses have committed to being open for the summer, albeit with smaller staffs and shorter hours. 

Visitors would have to arrive primarily by small airplane or the marine highway system which has been crippled with multiple mechanical failures and cancellations.

Bourcy, who owns Rictors and the Alaska Liquor Store, says she ordered her 2020 merchandise before the pandemic began. Once it was clear there wouldn’t be a cruise ship season, there was no stopping the shipments.

Bourcy said she has had to rebudget, borrow and keep rebudgetting. PPP funds helped. She has a core group of locals who will run her businesses this summer. Anyone who normally travels from other parts of the country to work for Bourcy during the tourist season will be staying home. 

“I’m so proud of how our community is pulling together. Skagway has always taken care of each other,” Bourcy said. 

She does worry that residents have been moving away and hopes that doesn’t continue.

“I would love to be optimistic to hope to see some ships, but I know that probably won’t happen,” she said.

“But we’ll be open.”