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Soon return of cruise ships raises concerns

Residents worry about COVID-19 outbreaks on ships amid current surge

Princess Cruise Lines’ Star Princess is anchored off Lahaina on March 5, 2020, shortly before the state restricted travel and the county issued stay-at-home orders as the earliest COVID-19 cases began to spread in Hawaii. Some residents are expressing concerns about the return of commercial cruise ships to Maui this week as cases continue to hover at high levels statewide. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

With Maui set to see its first arrivals of commercial cruise ships this week, some residents are concerned about potential outbreaks among passengers as COVID-19 cases remain high on Maui and across the state.

The Kahului Harbor will have its first cruise ship since the start of the pandemic, the Grand Princess, on Wednesday, and Lahaina Harbor will host the Residences at Sea’s The World on Saturday.

Last week, the state Department of Transportation Harbors Division announced port agreements with Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line that come with COVID prevention requirements. Gov. David Ige’s office said Monday that agreements include 99 to 100 percent full vaccination rates of passengers (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires 95 percent) along with other safeguards, which the DOT said include a medical agreement outlining evacuation of passengers or crew in need of care and a housing agreement should quarantine or isolation of passengers or crew be needed.

The group Hale Hawai’i, whose aim is to keep the islands safe from COVID-19, said that cruise ships are well-known vectors for COVID transmission and despite requiring all passengers and crew to be vaccinated, the ships have been unsuccessful in controlling outbreaks.

“At a time when we are facing the most contagious virus known to humanity, the state is now choosing to allow cruise ships to dock and allow passengers to disembark and further expose our community,” the group, which has members on Maui and across the state, said in a statement Monday.

“It is irresponsible for the state and county to be loosening travel mitigation measures at a time when we should be clearly tightening them. Our state has prioritized businesses that make money from tourism above the health and lives of our residents,” the statement said.

The group shared a petition on its Facebook page that urges Ige and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, along with the state departments of Health and Transportation, to halt cruise ships until a new set of Safe Travels regulations regarding cruise ships is put in place that includes rapid testing requirements at every port of call. Around 315 people had signed the online petition as of Monday afternoon.

The Safe Travels Program has been used to regulate passengers traveling to Hawaii from out of state, requiring that they show proof of vaccination or a negative pre-travel COVID-19 test in order to avoid quarantine.

Jodi Leong, spokesperson for the governor, said that Ige has not seen the petition.

“We are concerned about cruise ships returning to the island during this COVID-19 surge, especially in light of the recent change to the CDC’s Travel Health Notice level from 3 to 4,” the Governor’s Office said in a statement on Monday.

The move from Level 3 to Level 4 signals the risk for getting COVID-19 is “very high.”

“We are in discussions with the cruise liners and there are stringent requirements in place in the port agreements,” the Governor’s Office said.

When asked to clarify what the discussions were, Leong said she was not sure of the nature of discussions but believed it was about safety.

Because of safety concerns, the LahainaTown Action Committee will not facilitate the usual lei greeting and live music at Lahaina Harbor that used to accompany the arrival of cruise ships before the pandemic, said Sne Patel, the committee’s president.

“Given the risk at this point, with close contacts, we have no plans at this time to continue that, but are assessing ways we can still engage in that activity in a safe way,” Patel said on Monday.

The committee has been working with the Hawaii Tourism Authority to figure out a strategy to continue the greetings, but they haven’t signed on to any agreements. In the past, HTA provided the committee with a grant that paid for the greeters and musicians, Patel said. He acknowledged the trickle-down effect that the pandemic has caused, as now the committee and, in turn, the groups of kupuna greeters and musicians are not receiving the benefit either.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said via email Monday that in addition to the The World, Lahaina will also see Norwegian Cruise Line’s Insignia this month.

Kahului Harbor will also see Carnival Miracle, Insignia, Ruby Princess and Koningsdam this month.

NCL, however, canceled Pride of America cruises through late February, Kunishige said.

Cruise ships also need to provide a full report of any suspected or confirmed cases onboard prior to arriving in Hawaii. The state Department of Health must approve the ship’s action plan for dealing with cases before it is allowed in port.

Also, cruise ships must call Honolulu Harbor as its first port, and there is a limit of one vessel per port per day, Kunishige said.

Disembarkation times are staggered to limit crowds during the Safe Travels screening, she added.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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