BAR HARBOR — The company that operates the smallest cruise ships that visit here is in the final stages of seeking approval from the state to resume operations this summer with special health protocols, but the Town Council decided Tuesday to keep the town closed to all cruise ships for the rest of this year.
“We feel we’re approaching the right time for our ship to return to service,” Paul Taiclet, vice president of American Cruise Lines, which operates the Constellation, Constitution and Independence, told councilors.
The company has worked closely with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on a plan to operate safely. It has collected letters from MDI Hospital and local ambulance services saying they’re in receipt of the plan and would be able to provide the requested services in case a passenger became ill with COVID-19 when the ship was here.
Hospital staff had multiple phone meetings with the cruise line, according to Barbara MacPike, the hospital’s infection preventionist. “The cruise line has been very responsive,” she said.
The proposal was for the ship to make seven visits this season, with 60 passengers and about 40 crew. Testing, temperature checks and health surveillance would take place before boarding. The staterooms’ air handling systems are not connected to each other, Taiclet said.
Shore excursions, too, would be limited to 50 percent capacity, and passengers would be expected to comply with local rules for social distancing and face coverings. Anyone found violating rules could be restricted to the ship for the duration of the cruise, he said.
Councilors said they appreciated the work that went into the plan, but that allowing any cruise ship visitation would just be a step too far for already stressed and frightened residents.
“You said you understand the sensitivity” around the issue of cruise ships during the pandemic, Councilor Jill Goldthwait told Taiclet, “but with all due respect, I’m not sure you do.” The residents who emailed and called councilors to oppose the plan “are known to me,” she said, “and I know that they are sincere in saying they are worried.
This season, she continued, “nothing is normal and everything is stressful.” Cruise ships represent “a major threat psychologically to many of our residents.”
Councilor Erin Cough said news that cruise ships, even small ones, were here this year could keep some land-based tourists away.
The council vote to keep the town closed to all cruise ships was 6-1, with Councilor Stephen Coston dissenting.
“I think when (we) say ‘cruise ship,’ people are thinking Anthem of the Seas (one of the largest ships that visits here),” he said. Larger ships that have been identified as high-transmission settings, he argued, are that way partly because they include activities that are high risk on land, a “party” atmosphere with large groups at live performances, parties and clubs. These small ships are more like boutique hotels and likely much lower risk.
The council only received one email in support of the plan, from the Chamber of Commerce, but Coston argued, “people that either don’t care or are in support of this just don’t write emails. We’re telling the cruise business, and business in general, that we don’t care what your plan is,” it won’t be good enough.