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Growing COVID-19 outbreak in Sitka likely won’t affect first major commercial cruise to Alaska since 2019

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The Royal Caribbean ship Serenade of the Seas approaches Ketchikan on a test cruise with volunteer passengers on July 9. (Eric Stone / KRBD)

A growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Sitka is not expected to affect the arrival on Wednesday of Alaska’s first large cruise ship to carry commercial passengers since 2019.

Royal Caribbean officials on Tuesday released a statement touting the Serenade of the Seas 7-day cruise to Alaska.

Sitka Emergency Operations Center incident commander Craig Warren said on Tuesday afternoon that to his knowledge, the Sitka stop is a departure.

“We have contacted them and discussed with them the arrival of the ship tomorrow with our high number of COVID cases here,” Warren said. “And as it is, they’re still planning to come.”

This is despite at least 175 active cases of COVID-19 in the community of less than 9,000 people.

Royal Caribbean executive Russell Benford said earlier this month that the cruise line is monitoring COVID-19 activity at the ports it visits and may adjust its itinerary.

“We’ve seen places around the world that are peaking. We have internal conversations, we have thresholds and protocols in place. And so if we want the safety of our guests, our crew and the community, we have to bypass, we can do it. But this is a conversation that we will have with each of the communities, it will not be a decision that we will make in a vacuum, it will be in the context of communication and collaboration, ”said Benford at an event commemorating the arrival of the Serenade test cruise in Ketchikan on July 9.

The line requires all passengers 16 and older to be fully vaccinated for its July cruises to Alaska. Cruises to the Last Frontier from August will require all ages 12 and over to be vaccinated.

Almost everyone on the Serenade of the Seas – 97% of passengers and crew – is vaccinated, Royal Caribbean said in a statement Tuesday.

This means few restrictions for most passengers at the port. Fully vaccinated guests are free to book independent shore excursions or walk around the city without a tour group. Groups that include unvaccinated people – such as families with children – will need to purchase tours through the cruise line.

Some fear that high COVID-19 infection rates in Alaskan port communities could lead to canceled port calls or restrictions for visitors. Small cruise ship operator UnCruise canceled two scheduled stopovers in Ketchikan in May, citing a spike in cases in the community.

Cruise lines were required by Centers for Disease Control rules to coordinate with local authorities in the communities they visited. But Sitka EOC commander Craig Warren says the agreements are designed to protect communities from infected ships – not the other way around.

“In our port agreements, the multi-port agreement to which Ketchikan also signed, we indicated that the local health authority could turn back a boat in the event of an epidemic,” he said. “But there was nothing to the contrary, hijacking a boat for a big epidemic in the community.”

The 2021 maiden voyage will go from Sitka to Hoonah’s Icy Strait Point, then to Juneau and Ketchikan before returning to Seattle next week.


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