Fishing boats and a cruise ship are tied up in Petersburg’s South Harbor in 2019. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg officials and residents have questions remaining about how a cruise ship company plans to protect passengers and the community from COVID-19 spread. The company American Cruise Lines still hopes to start sailings in Southeast Alaska later this month.

American Cruise Lines has proposed sailings in Southeast Alaska starting later this month on its ship American Constellation.

The cruise line’s president and CEO Charles Robertson said his company has come up with protocols for operating in each port it visits.

“And so we’re working with each town and each tour provider to practice social distancing and to put really strict sanitation protocols in place so that our guests are wearing masks, they’re sanitizing after they leave the ship, they’re sanitizing after they get off the bus and the venue itself is cleaned properly before our visit,” Robertson said.

Robertson answered questions on a Petersburg radio call in show recently. He explained that the American Constellation’s capacity will be reduced to a maximum of 130 people, instead of 175. Empty cabins can be used for isolating guests showing symptoms or awaiting a test result. Passengers and crew also will be more spread out than usual.

The company wants passengers tested before sailings, in lieu of a 14-day travel quarantine.

“Passengers will submit a test result before they travel,” Robertson said. “So they’ll either take one from home or we’re working on a mail-in test kit that they may be able to take in conjunction with our medical provider. And then the state of Alaska has talked about doing testing after they arrive in Juneau which is something that we would support also.”

The cruise company says demand remains strong for an Alaska season this summer. Robertson even said the cruise line has taken on new bookings from passengers who’ve had cancellations by other companies on larger ships.

The possibility of cruise dockings has been a continuing topic of discussion at borough assembly meetings this spring.

Viking Travel co-owner Nancy Berg this month urged the assembly to help salvage part of the visitor season this year.

“I think that cruise ship passengers may just be the safest visitors that we’ll get this summer, on the small cruise ships,” Berg said. “There are lots of non-community members walking around town these days with no masks. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen that. I suspect they’re coming in on small boats or yachts. I’m not sure who they are. In addition we have mandates to self-quarantine for two weeks and with no enforcement, I believe we’ve all seen evidence that that’s not always happening.”

Berg urged the assembly to work toward a solution rather than discouraging visitors.

Another local resident Marjorie Oines was concerned that passengers could still be allowed to disembark from a ship that had positive cases isolated on board.

“I would just like to recommend that you consider requiring the cruise passenger people to wear masks, if there’s someone that’s positive on the ship,” Oines said. That’s what my thought would be.”

Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter was asked about the cruise company’s operating plan. He focused on testing and how that would be conducted.

“It’s sincerely a risk mitigation strategy,” Hofstetter said. “So if you have the ability to test, number one my question would be how fast can you turn around that time to get that test? So if someone’s sitting in port, the whole ship gets tested, you have to wait 2-3 days to get results back and, everything’s probably all fine and good if everything’s negative but the contingency plan of what you do with a positive is something that we would really want to focus on.”

The borough is responding to a survey from the Alaska Municipal League about preferences for small cruise ship dockings and COVID precautions. Assembly member Chelsea Tremblay wanted emergency operations centers (EOCs) involved in that discussion.

“I would like the companies to be working directly with EOCs around the region slash AML as our go-between for the region and just developing the best practices and what the safety precautions could be,” Tremblay said

She also noted that local emergency officials have already been doing this work with seafood processing company plans.

Borough incident commander Karl Hagerman thought the cruise company’s plan looks good but again cautioned that it would depend on how well it is implemented. He agreed communities in Southeast Alaska are being cautious about bringing in cruise ships this summer.

“Going forward this summer as I mentioned earlier in the meeting, we’ve already seen a spike this last weekend and hopefully that won’t continue but if it does it will surely at some point filter to Petersburg and we’ll be dealing with plenty of work at the hospital on our own and it’s not very helpful to bring in people from outside that want to see the region but don’t really need to see the region this year,” Hagerman said.

The borough has a local health mandate in place through the end of the month. It requires approval by the borough’s public health officer before a ship can tie up here. And it involves a finding by the borough that the passengers and crew present no hazard of transmitting COVID-19 to people in Petersburg. Assembly member Jeff Meucci wondered about extending that.

“I think we need to be honest with ourselves and the community and the cruise ship industry that we don’t want to just keep kicking this can down the road,” Meucci said. “If we’re not interested and we don’t think the plans are in place to make their visits safe for the passengers as well as the community members then we need to kind of reach out maybe into August or September and put that policy, that mandate in place until August or September.”

That decision could be on the agenda for the assembly’s second meeting in June.