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Maui hosts first cruise ship since start of the pandemic

State confirms there were COVID-19 cases aboard Grand Princess but said that they did not disembark

The Grand Princess is docked at the Kahului Harbor on Wednesday afternoon, the first cruise ship to arrive on Maui since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago. State officials confirmed that there were COVID-19 cases aboard but did not disclose the number and said that those passengers and their close contacts were not allowed to disembark. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

KAHULUI — A commercial cruise ship of nearly 2,000 passengers sailed into the Kahului Harbor on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the pandemic, signaling the return of a mode of travel that some worry will pose a health risk at a time of record-high cases on Maui.

The Grand Princess arrived at 6:52 a.m. with 1,188 passengers and departed at 6 p.m., according to the state Department of Transportation.

Not all passengers came ashore after some tested positive for COVID-19 or came in close contact with someone who caught the virus. Neither the Transportation Department nor the Health Department could say how many cases were onboard.

“As of Jan. 12 there are no cases onboard the Grand Princess requiring hospitalization or additional medical attention,” DOT spokesperson Shelly Kunishige said Wednesday. “Close contacts of the COVID positive individuals identified through the procedural surveillance testing have been isolated and not allowed to disembark. No COVID positive individuals whether symptomatic or asymptomatic have been allowed to disembark.”

Kunishige pointed out that disembarking passengers and crew have gone through the Safe Travels program screening, which requires people traveling to Hawaii from out of state to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken prior to travel.

With 1,188 passengers onboard, the Grand Princess arrived at Kahului Harbor early Wednesday morning after making stops on Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii island this week.

The Grand Princess, which according to the company’s website has a guest capacity of 2,600, arrived in Honolulu on Sunday, according to hawaii.portcall.com, which is run by the Department of Transportation. It stopped at Nawiliwili Harbor in Kauai on Monday before traveling to Hilo on Tuesday and arriving at Kahului on Wednesday.

“There were a few bumps in the morning because (this is) the first cruise ship in Kahului Harbor for two years,” DOT Harbors Maui District Manager Duane Kim said Wednesday evening as he waited for the Grand Princess to depart.

Kim said that the buses offering shore excursions were spread out to avoid crowding among disembarking passengers. He didn’t have an exact count for the number of people who came ashore but said the bulk of passengers on cruise ships tend to disembark in port.

Like many other industries, the harbor faces staffing challenges, but Kim said the current crew should be sufficient as cruise ships return to Maui.

Five more ships are expected in Kahului Harbor this month, Kim said, including the Carnival Miracle on Saturday, Insignia on Monday, the Ruby Princess on Jan. 22, the Koningsdam on Jan. 26 and the Grand Princess on Jan. 27, according to hawaii.portcall.com.

Lahaina Harbor will host Residences at Sea’s The World from Saturday to Monday and Insignia on Wednesday.

Certain cruise lines are returning to Hawaii after signing port agreements that requires ships to have onboard testing and medical capacity as well as evacuation plans for passengers or crew in need of care and isolation and quarantine protocols.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had assigned the Grand Princess a “yellow” status, meaning that reported cases had met the threshold for CDC investigation. This means cases were reported in 0.10 percent or more of passengers or one or more cases reported among the crew on restricted voyages; 1.5 percent or more of passengers or 1 percent or more of the crew on simulated voyages; and 1 percent or more of the crew on ships with crew only.

Standing along the edge of Kahului Harbor watching the surfers and the cruise ship in the distance, Haiku resident and retired nurse Connie Layer said that she was worried about the potential impacts of returning cruise ships on local hospitals during the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

“I don’t think our health infrastructure can really handle it right now, personally,” said Layer, who worked at Maui Memorial Medical Center for 25 years and at Kula Hospital for another eight years. “I feel very strong for my friends that are nurses in the emergency room, in the ICU. They are really hurting.”

Layer also wasn’t sure whether the potential economic boost was worth the health risks.

“I don’t know how much business these bring because I think people spend all their money on going on the cruise ship,” she said. “They eat on the cruise ship. They might buy trinkets. So I’m not sure if the economy warrants this kind of (activity).”

Haiku resident John Bruder, who comes to Kahului Harbor regularly for surfing, wing foiling and other sports, wasn’t surprised about the return of the cruise travel.

“It’s inevitable. They’ve been out for a long time,” Bruder said. “The economy, you know, needs these tourists here. And I wouldn’t want to go on a cruise, but certain people do. I would just say if you’re worried about it, get vaccinated, because this new variant is very contagious.”

Bruder didn’t want to see the hospitals overwhelmed but added that “I don’t think that banning cruises is going to make a big difference to the health of the population on the island.”

“The infections are going crazy before the cruise ship was here,” he pointed out.

One unexpected drawback is that the cruise ship blocks the wind, “so now when the cruise ship is here we’re not going to be able to wing foil in the harbor,” Bruder said. “But that’s just selfish, just my own interests.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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