Federal warnings to avoid cruise ship travel because of the growing novel coronavirus epidemic have yet to affect more than 100 scheduled ship landings in Maine this year, but state and local officials – and businesses that rely on tourism – are preparing for the worst.

In a rapidly changing situation, it is unknown how deeply the spreading viral disease will cut into an industry that brings about 400,000 passengers and $29 million in spending to Maine every spring and fall. Some analysts already are reporting double-digit declines in cruise ship bookings worldwide, and two cruise lines announced temporary suspensions of all voyages Thursday.

Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Heather Johnson Photo by Michele Stapleton

“Right now there are no schedule changes,” said Maine Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Heather Johnson.

The first cruise ship headed for Maine this year is due to stop in both Portland and Bar Harbor on April 25, according to the Maine Office of Tourism’s CruiseMaine website, and measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak could be more or less stringent by then.

“It is evolving as we speak,” Johnson said.

Virus fears already have affected at least one Maine business that caters to cruise ship passengers. Kathy Frappier, owner of Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours, said she received her first cancellation Tuesday from travelers who had planned a cruise in May.

Portland Discovery offers trolley tours of Portland and ferry tours of Casco Bay.

“Was I surprised? No, not at all,” Frappier said. “We are feeling it already. We are doing what other businesses in our situation are – planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”

Brewster Harding, who owns the Shipwreck & Cargo gift shop on Commercial Street in Portland, said he is concerned about losing business, but it’s too early to tell what the impact might be.

“We usually don’t get any big cruise ships in the spring,” Harding said. “Usually it is in September and October – we’re hoping that things will improve by then.”

Like many businesses, Harding’s store doesn’t depend on cruise ships for customers, but they do give his business a 10 percent to 20 percent bump in the fall. Most people who stop in to buy souvenirs or gifts travel to Portland in a car or tour bus, and he hasn’t heard anything to suggest those tourists are canceling plans.

“It’s pretty fluid as far as what’s going to happen,” Harding said. “If this can blow over in a couple months, I think things will get back on track.”

On Sunday, the U.S. State Department issued a warning that U.S. passengers, especially those with underlying health issues, should not travel by cruise ship.

Cruise ships have become hot spots for spreading the virus that causes the respiratory disease known as COVID-19. A number of ports worldwide have prohibited passengers from disembarking because of fears they could spread the virus onshore.

In its advisory, the State Department said that while it has evacuated some cruise ships, American citizens under potential risk of quarantine by local authorities should not rely on flights back to the U.S.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued updated guidance, warning passengers to put off cruise ship travel.

“Like many other viruses, COVID-19 appears to spread more easily between people in close quarters aboard ships,” the CDC said. “Person-to-person spread of COVID-19 is occurring and countries are reporting both travel-related cases and community spread of the disease. As the outbreak of COVID-19 continues, there remains a risk of infected travelers and crew boarding cruise ships.”

The cruise industry, through its biggest trade group, announced extra steps to screen cruise-goers for the virus and deny boarding to potentially infected passengers.

With those strict measures in place, the industry does not believe restrictions on the movement of ships is justified, said the Washington, D.C.-based Cruise Lines International Association in a statement.

“The adoption of these measures further demonstrates the cruise industry’s unique ability to respond quickly as circumstances evolve,” said CLIA President and CEO Kelly Craighead.

Cruise lines will not allow people on board who have visited China, Iran, South Korea or parts of Italy, or anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 two weeks prior to boarding. Companies also plan to conduct temperature screening on all people boarding ships and give secondary health screenings of those with temperatures above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Portland, estimated cruise ship landings grew by more than 80 percent between 2015 and 2018. This year, 119 ships are scheduled to stop in the city, most in September and October.

The first ship, MS Victory II, which can carry about 300 passengers and crew, is expected to dock in Portland on April 25.

“To our knowledge, there has not been an adjustment to the schedule as of now,” the city of Portland’s spokeswoman, Jessica Grondin, said in an email. “However, that does not preclude scheduling changes from occurring in the future.”

The Governor’s Coronavirus Response Team and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development are working with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for the implications of COVID-19 on the state’s cruise season, Grondin said.

State agencies will work with the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Transportation and CDC to provide guidance in case a ship scheduled to land in Maine has a passenger with COVID-19, she said.

“At the local level, Portland’s port tariff does provide us with the ability to turn away any cruise ship should it be deemed necessary,” Grondin said.

About 400,000 cruise passengers visited Maine in 2019, as coastal cities and towns in the state grew in popularity as stops on planned New England and Canadian loops.

A state-funded survey last year estimated cruise passengers spend about $70 each in the state, roughly $29 million combined. That spending is a minor component of Maine’s $6 billion annual tourism industry, which recorded 36 million visits in 2018, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

While direct spending is small, cruise industry proponents say it offers tourists a glimpse of the state and can entice them to return for longer vacations.

Bar Harbor, the state’s biggest cruise destination, hasn’t changed its protocols in reaction to the coronavirus, said Harbor Master Charles Phippen.

Like Portland and other ports of call, Phippen said the town is waiting for directions from federal authorities before taking extra precautions.

“We’re still in wait-and-see mode. I don’t think we are at the point yet where we have to start limiting ships and passengers,” he said. “I have not received any guidance above my level that that is going to take place.

“Not to say that at some point in the future we might be looking more carefully at ship arrivals,” Phippen added.

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