Cruise ship arrives in Skagway, after passenger flown home with COVID-19

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A cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska, in 2019. On Tuesday, the town welcomed its first big cruise ship in nearly 2 years.  (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska, in 2019. On Tuesday, the town welcomed its first big cruise ship in nearly 2 years. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Andrew Cremata, mayor of Skagway, Alaska, calls the first big cruise ship to arrive in his community in nearly two years the "light at the end of the tunnel."

And he's not too worried by the case of COVID-19 was confirmed on board that ship, just days earlier.

"I don't think it's a great cause of concern. We definitely want to be aware of it," Cremata said.

According to Celebrity Cruises, a fully-vaccinated passenger tested positive for COVID-19 onboard the Celebrity Millennium and received "private air transportation" home from Juneau. The passenger on Sunday reported cold-like symptoms to the ship's medical personnel and subsequently tested positive, the cruise line said in a statement Tuesday.

The person was isolated in the ship's medical facility for monitoring. The company said it did contact tracing and tested the person's close contacts, who were all negative for the virus.

Cremata said the incident shows that Alaska was well-prepared to welcome cruise ships again this year, even with the risk of COVID-19. He said protocols were followed, and the risk to local communities was minimized.

"Those protocols are in place for that reason," Cremata said.

Submitted by Andrew Cremata
Submitted by Andrew Cremata

When the Celebrity Millennium — with about half its maximum passenger load — arrived in Skagway on Tuesday morning, Cremata was there to greet it, along with other local officials. The community last month welcomed its first cruise ship since 2019, but that was a smaller vessel. Tuesday marked the return of the major cruise operators.

"It's very welcome. People here are extremely excited," Cremata said.

"As the 18th-most-visited cruise ship port in the world, it's nice to get back to business — even if it is just a small amount compared to what we usually get."

Living with risk

Before the pandemic hit, Skagway was seeing about a million tourists pour off the visiting cruise ships every year. Cruise ship tourism represented about 95 per cent of the town's economy, according to Cremata.

So, the pandemic hit Skagway hard as the cruise industry ground to a halt. Even the smaller — but still significant — stream of overland visitors from nearby Whitehorse was cut off. It wasn't clear how the town could survive.

That's why the community can live with the risk of COVID-19 arriving by sea, Cremata says. The alternative is worse.

"My guess is at least some of the ships, if not all of them, are going to have situations where there's a person that has COVID or a passenger that, you know, had some exposure," he said.

"I think people here understand the stakes. If we're going to have a community here in the next couple of years, we have to be willing to say, you know, we've done what we can do to mitigate our risk and we have to have an economy and everyone has to have an income."

Officials in Juneau also say that they're expecting some COVID-19 cases on visiting cruise ships.

Becky Bohrer/Associated Press
Becky Bohrer/Associated Press

"I think that we were never expecting the cruise season to be entirely COVID free," Robert Barr, Juneau's deputy city manager, told KTOO Public Media. He said he was confident in the city's efforts with the cruise industry and state health department to ensure a safe season.

State health officials have said vaccines are the best defence against the spread of the coronavirus. Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist, has noted the vaccine effectiveness is "exceptionally high" but said the vaccine is "not perfect."

In Skagway, Cremata says the local population is "highly vaccinated," but he also knows that's not enough. The town is still urging people to maintain physical distance, and wear masks indoors.

"Nothing in life comes without risk. So maybe we have a little bit higher risk than we did. But if people are taking the necessary precautions for the health of themselves and their families, it should be okay," he said.

"Now that we have ships coming in town, I intend to wear a mask in public all the time."

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