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Updated: March 15, 2021

Community COVID plans might allow some cruise ships to call on Maine

File Photo / Laurie Schreiber Canada’s extension of its prohibition of cruise ships will likely prevent foreign-flagged ships from visiting Maine this year.

Community protocols are being developed to safely welcome cruise ships back to Maine, and the rules may be ready for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to review by mid-April.

For now, they will focus on cruise ships owned by U.S.-based American Cruise Lines, Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, told the town of Bar Harbor’s Cruise Ship Committee at a recent virtual meeting.

The focus on that line is due to the Canadian government's decision last month to prohibit cruise vessels in Canadian waters until Feb. 28, 2022. As a result, foreign-flagged ships are unlikely to be able to visit Maine until that time.

“We’ll keep an eye on what’s happening elsewhere and if there’s a way for foreign-flagged ships to come to Maine,” Flink said. “But right now, the American-flagged ships are the ones that can come.”

In February, the government of Canada announced a one-year ban on cruise vessels carrying more than 100 people and on pleasure craft. A previous prohibition on pleasure craft and cruise ships was originally scheduled to end Feb. 28, 2021.  

The extension is a big deal for Maine.

Screenshot / Town of Bar Harbor
The Bar Harbor Cruise Ship Committee met recently to discuss protocols that might allow visits of U.S. ships this season.

That’s because of an obscure federal maritime law called the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886. The law requires foreign-flagged passenger ships to call on a foreign port as part of their itinerary in the U.S.

Almost all ships that operate in American waters are foreign-flagged. For foreign-flagged cruise ships visiting Maine ports, the nearest foreign ports are in eastern Canada. 

However, Maine also typically receives visits from two small U.S.-flagged cruise ships from Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines — the Independence and the American Constitution — that are not bound by the act because they operate under U.S. jurisdiction.

American Cruise Lines typically calls on nine ports in Maine and has maintained an active dialogue with each of those communities about the upcoming season, Flink has told Mainebiz. The line's "Maine Coast and Harbors Cruise" for this summer, advertised on its website, includes stops in Portland, Bar Harbor, Castine, Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Boothbay and Bath. Rates per person range from $4,050 to $4,630. 

In the meantime, CruiseMaine has been working with communities to develop protocols for accommodating cruise visitors in 2021. 

For each port, that includes enhanced sanitation, embarkation plans that ensure social distancing, mask distribution and disposal, contingency plans for potential cases, and a communications plan.

The goal is to have a comprehensive statewide plan for the new protocols to handle COVID prevention and response, Flink told the committee. The timeframe will give ports time to engage in the planning process and understand the results, she said.

“There will be an opportunity to weigh in,” she added. 

Maine CDC will also be reviewing America Cruise Lines' updated sail plans, she explained. That’s also expected to be ready by mid-April. 

“I’m only focusing on American Cruise Lines right now” due to Canada’s restrictions, Flink said.

Larger cruise ships might resume operations in the Mediterranean in mid-May, she added.

“We’re not in any hurry, but we’re all keeping an eye on that,” she said.

There are a couple of scenarios that might make it possible for Maine to receive foreign-flagged ships, she continued. One is for Canada to allow them back to its ports; the other is for Congress to amend the Passenger Vessel Services Act to eliminate the foreign-flagged provision.

“The best odds are if Canada changes their mind. And no one has any idea how likely that is,” she said.

However, she added, members of Alaska’s Congressional delegation are looking into legislation to bypass the requirement.

Flink said American Cruise Lines plans to sail the Independence to Bar Harbor and take the Constitution to Bucksport. 

Bar Harbor’s harbormaster, Charlie Phippen, noted that 108 cruise ships remain on the 2021 schedule but most are expected to cancel. But 2022 is already up to 145 ships and bookings are coming in for the following years.

Bar Harbor is Maine’s most popular cruise ship port, receiving nearly 200 visits in 2019.

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