Dunleavy joins attempt to force cruise season through federal court

  • Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during an April 9 press briefing to announce a package of relief for tourism businesses impacted by the 2020 and 2021 disruptions to the summer season brought on by COVID-19 mitigation measures. On April 20 he announced the state would seek to join a lawsuit by the State of Florida against the Centers for Disease Control to lift the current no-sail order on cruise ships. (Photo/Kevin Goodman/Office of the Governor)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is trying to salvage Alaska’s fast-approaching summer tourism season through a Florida court.

The governor’s office announced April 20 that the Dunleavy administration would attempt to intervene in the State of Florida’s lawsuit against the Centers for Disease control to lift the federal agency’s Conditional Sailing Order that currently prohibits large cruise ships from sailing in domestic waters.

Dunleavy’s administration estimated the cancellation of the 2020 season cost the Alaska economy roughly $3 billion in a statement from his office.

“Alaskan families and small businesses need fast action to protect their ability to work and provide for their families,” the governor said April 21. “We have been told to follow the science and facts. Cruise ships have demonstrated their ability to provide for the safety of passengers and crew and Alaska has led the nation in (COVID-19) vaccinations and low hospitalization rates. We deserve the chance to have tourism and jobs.”

Acting Attorney General Treg Taylor insisted the CDC “simply does not have the authority to arbitrarily shut down an entire industry.”

Alaska lost approximately 9,600 jobs in the broader leisure and hospitality industry last year, according to state Labor Department economists, who estimated in January the industry would likely add about 3,500 jobs back this year. At that time it was largely presumed some level of cruise activity would occur this year.

While several small cruise companies that fall outside the CDC rules for large ships are operating this summer with Alaska-only itineraries, the global cruise operators that traditionally sail the inside passage from Pacific Northwest ports brought roughly 1.3 million visitors to the state each summer prior to the pandemic.

The tourism industry had been one of the few large industries to grow in recent years along with the once-surging Lower 48 economy as others struggled with the impacts of low oil prices, uncertainties from the state’s now omnipresent multibillion-dollar structural budget deficits.

The State of Florida first sued the CDC in a complaint filed April 8 in the Tampa Division of the U.S. District Court of Middle Florida alleging the public health agency has unreasonably delayed the resumption of the major industry for many coastal states and violated the Administrative Procedures Act on multiple levels in issuing the Conditional Sailing Order last October.

That order lays out a detailed, phased plan to resume cruise sailings but it does not put a timeline on how quickly the process can play out. Representatives for cruise companies have said they are doing everything they can to comply with the order but have received little information on when exactly they can start sailing again.

Despite the strong push by state governments to fight the federal restrictions, it’s unclear what practical impact the suit can have on the 2021 summer season. Holland America Vice President Ralph Samuels said April 9 that the tour operator could resume sailings by early July if given immediate clearance.

Dunleavy said during an April 16 press briefing that he was told the cruise companies would likely need clearance within “the next couple days” to start the complex process of readying the ships and crews for sailings in the coming months.

Middle Florida District Court Judge Steven Merryday scheduled a May 12 hearing over Florida’s motion for a preliminary injunction to lift the CDC rules in an April 23 court order.

The governor also announced April 14 a rough plan for a $150 million state aid package for tourism-dependent businesses in the state.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer is currently on a multi-week tour of the state to hear from industry leaders about how most effectively package the funding support.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has also been working legislative angles to get the big ships sailing to the state again, but that will also require some sort of waiver to the 19th Century-era Passenger Vessel Services Act, which requires foreign-built large passenger vessels to make a stop at a foreign port when traveling between U.S. ports.

Canadian officials announced in February that the country would not allow large cruise ships at its ports again this summer, adding another major hurdle for state and federal officials to clear before the ships can sail again.

Sen. Dan Sullivan praised the Dunleavy administration’s attempt to join Florida’s lawsuit in an April 21 statement, arguing the CDC has only given states and the industry “many months of mixed messages, foot-dragging and unresponsiveness.”

Sullivan and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio introduced legislation April 13 to revoke the CDC’s Conditional Sailing Order.

Federal attorneys had not yet responded to Florida’s complaint as of April 26.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/28/2021 - 8:51am