U.S. Coast Guard Commander Jason Boyer, chief of prevention for Sector Northern New England, left, addressed the Bar Harbor Cruise Ship Committee Tuesday. At right is Lt. Cmdr. Greg Knoll. ISLANDER PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Bar Harbor officials updated on cruise ship health plans; no local restrictions proposed

BAR HARBOR — When a cruise ship is carrying one or more people believed to be infected with the novel Coronavirus and/or associated respiratory disease, the decision about where or whether that ship will be allowed to dock and discharge passengers is up to the Coast Guard and U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a Coast Guard official told the town’s Cruise Ship Committee today.

The town committee is not recommending any change in the plan to host up to 298,000 passengers in 197 cruise ship visits in the coming season scheduled to begin April 25. But it will recommend that the Town Council convene a special task force to help the town prepare for the tourist season in light of the international spread of the novel Coronavirus and associated respiratory disease.

Updates and any necessary action related to the public health situation are expected to be a standing agenda item for the Town Council beginning this Tuesday, March 17, and continuing until the public health concern subsides.

“We’re not just waiting for a ship to arrive to start figuring out what we’re going to do,” said Commander Jason Boyer, chief of prevention for Sector Northern New England, U.S. Coast Guard.

Ships are required to provide a 96-hour notice of arrival, he said. In that time, his team goes through an entire crew list and passenger manifest. “We go right down the line” to determine potential risks, he said.

And, at least as far as ships’ crew are concerned, port facility operators are not actually allowed to impede embarkation or disembarkation, according to a March 9 Marine Safety Information Bulletin from the Coast Guard states. “This authority resides with CBP, Coast Guard, or the CDC for medical matters.”

Harbormaster Charlie Phippen added, “We’ve not invented something. It’s in place, and it’s being enhanced because of the virulent nature of this virus.”

A large enough crowd gathered for today’s meeting of the committee that an overflow group gathered in an adjacent room. Also on hand were representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard, who explained procedures in place at the federal level to protect public safety as ships approach U.S. ports; representatives of U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King; Mount Desert Island Hospital and emergency medical services.

“We are vulnerable as a community,” committee member Jane Disney said, “because of the number of people who are about to descend on us.”

Several residents also voiced fears, saying it seems strange when large gatherings are being cancelled right and left to have cruise ships coming in a few weeks, each of which may carry thousands of people.

“I don’t think anybody that’s involved with this would dismiss that concern,” said Eben Salvatore, who chairs the committee. “We’ll have to decide what’s best for us as the season unfolds.”

Committee member Sandy McFarland noted many of the local residents who work as tour guides are senior citizens themselves, and may be at higher risk.

Greg Gorden, who represents shore excursion groups on the committee, said cruise lines have begun reaching out to shore tour operators. Passengers who are unwell will not be allowed out of their cabins, he said. “The same goes for tour guides — if you have a cold or a cough, they don’t want you to come down to the pier.”

Matt Bartlett, who leads the town’s fire department and ambulance service, and Barbara MacPike, an infection preventionist at MDI Hospital, told the group about the protocols in place in the local healthcare system. If testing is needed for coronavirus, MacPike said, at the moment the plan is for samples to be sent to a lab in Augusta.

“The criteria are changing constantly,” she said, “We’re staying on top of that.”

The committee, which normally meets only a few times a year, will meet at least biweekly for the next several weeks as the situation is rapidly evolving.

“I think we’ll get through this, we’re a pretty smart bunch,” Salvatore said, “We don’t have a choice. Failure’s not an option.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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