Ketchikan’s downtown Berths I and II are shown in this file photo. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

While concerns over the coronavirus have knocked out Alaska’s cruise industry for the time being, a question remains about where the huge ships will wait out the pandemic. 

Local officials in Ketchikan are weighing whether to allow idled cruise ships to tie up at the city-owned downtown docks.

More than 50 cruise lines have suspended sailings globally after federal health officials warned people not to get on cruises. The coronavirus pandemic — and the ensuing cruise industry shutdown — have created a unique problem: where can the ships go?

“At any given time, a lot of them are are underway normally,” said Ketchikan Port and Harbors Director Steve Corporon at a Ketchikan City Council meeting earlier this month. He compared it to 9/11, when federal officials suddenly grounded every plane in the sky after news of the hijackings broke.

JetBlue landed at a tiny airport in upstate New York. The population of Gander, Newfoundland nearly doubled as 38 planes landed at the town’s airport.

“The infrastructure wasn’t there to land all the planes at once,” Corporon said. “Similar here — the infrastructure really isn’t in place to have all the cruise ships in port in a place that can accept them all at once,”

But this disaster has unfolded much more slowly. 

Coroporon said he’s fielding inquiries from cruise lines looking for somewhere to park their ships while sailings are on hold. Usually, it’s his job to decide who gets to tie up at the city’s berths.

“But on a decision like this,” he said, “I would look to the manager and to the city council for guidance, because it’s a huge decision if we want to consider something like this.”

He laid out a set of possible conditions that the city could put on any cruise ships tying up. The ships would have to arrive fully provisioned with plenty of food and water for the crew, for example, and they wouldn’t be allowed to offload garbage.

And, importantly, “currently it appears that the [Centers for Disease Control] and the Coast Guard would not direct or allow a vessel to moor in Ketchikan if there were any known cases of COVID-19 onboard,” Corporon said.

Beyond that, he said, the crews aboard the ships wouldn’t be allowed to disembark. 

But Corporon says there’s one very important caveat.

“Legally, there would have to be some exceptions in order to comply with the seafarer exit regulations,” he said, “and that usually has to do with medical issues if they need to get somebody on or off.”

So what’s in it for Ketchikan? 

Not money, necessarily — Coroporon says that after paying for Coast Guard-mandated security, the city would more or less break even. And even if the cruise line paid for security, it wouldn’t be a bonanza for city finances.

But council member Sam Bergeron says it’s not necessarily about the money.

“We talked about what Ketchikan’s going to do going into the future and the cruise line business and having people cruise ships come here,” he said. “Well, I don’t think that they would forget that we weren’t good neighbors to them, you know, when times were hard.”

He said he’d support allowing the ships to dock in Ketchikan, assuming the cruise line could guarantee that the ship was free of coronavirus.

But council member Janalee Gage pushed back. 

“I’m sorry, I’m not going to support this because I’m not going to assume anything,” she said. “I’m going to assume that we’re all infected as we’re sitting around this table.”

She pointed to the fact that relatively few people can be tested for COVID-19 — especially people without symptoms.

“It’s not about [being a] good steward. It’s not about being a good neighbor,” she said. “It’s about making sure that we’re not infecting more people in our community.”

Ultimately, the council decided to postpone any action to give the public a chance to weigh in — the discussion was a last-minute addition to the meeting’s agenda. 

The council will discuss the idea of letting idled cruise ships dock in Ketchikan again at its next meeting on Thursday.