Bar Harbor has decided to close its ports to cruise ships for the remainder of the 2020 season as COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the country.
Town councilors voted to take that step Tuesday night, after Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines presented a plan to resume service this summer and to stop at several towns along the Maine coast. American Cruise Lines Vice President Paul Taiclet said the company's safety plan includes testing requirements and significantly reduced capacity, with only about 60 passengers and 40 crew members on board.
“Due to the size of our vessels, the reduced capacity, the risk mitigation plan we've put into place, with pre-cruise testing, with our medical officer and screening program on board the ship, we can operate safely,” Taiclet said. “And we can mitigate the risk, that we're not going to put our guests, our crew and the communities that we visit at risk. If we didn't feel we could do this safely, we would not be making the effort.”
Taiclet said that passengers would also be required to follow all local ordinances, including mask-wearing while visiting the mainland. He also said the company has spoken with local hospitals and first responders about plans for transporting and isolating any passengers that may contract the virus.
But Bar Harbor officials were largely against the idea. Councilor Jill Goldthwait said that local residents are already on edge about the virus, particularly as throngs of tourists return to Mount Desert Island while cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.
"How do we deal with this vast influx of people from all over the world, let alone our country?" Goldthwait said. "Now, somebody says, 'Well, maybe it's time for cruise ships to come back.' And for a lot of people, cruise ships are cruise ships, be they big or small. But even these very small, well-managed ships, with a highly responsible response plan, are a major threat, psychologically, to many of our residents."
The council overwhelmingly voted to close Bar Harbor to cruise ships for the remainder of the 2020 season. Only one councilor, Stephen Coston, said that he supported the plan from American Cruise Lines, saying that he viewed the relatively small ships from the company as more like a floating hotel, with lower risk than larger vessels with a more circus-like atmosphere.
In a follow-up interview Wednesday, Taiclet said that despite Bar Harbor's decision, American Cruise Lines was still planning to pursue an itinerary for Maine during the 2020 season and is having discussions with several towns, including Portland, Bucksport, Rockland and Camden.
"It's important for us. This is a partnership between us and the communities that we visit," Taiclet says. "So it's important to us that the communities are comfortable with what we're doing. And the best way for us to do that is by dialogue, by having meetings and conversations about developing our plan. And if communities are comfortable with what we're providing to them, we have confidence we can operate safely."
A spokesperson for the city of Portland said that a few city staff had been briefed on the plan, "but no decisions have been made yet."
In the state's reopening plan, the Mills administration has said that it "does not currently anticipate that it will be safe to accept cruise or commercial passenger ships with more than 50 people this summer," and that it will re-evaluate the decision in the fall.
The federal CDC also issued a "no-sail order" earlier this year for any commercial passenger ships that can carry more than 250 people.
Updated with comment from American Cruise Lines 4:32 p.m. July 8, 2020.