Two cruise lines to reopen in June with restrictions
NEW ORLEANS - With summer just around the corner and COVID-19 restrictions easing as the total amount of infection cases in the country continue to decrease, two cruise lines have announced they expect to return temporarily-docked ships to the waters by June.
According to The Advocate, American Cruise Lines is hoping to be the first cruise operator in the U.S. to return to the water since the coronavirus outbreak, with its first Port of New Orleans-bound riverboat, the American Harmony, set to launch from Memphis on June 28.
ACL rival American Queen Steamboat Company won't be far behind. Its American Duchess ship will launch only a day later, on June 29.
Both cruise lines include Baton Rouge and St. Francisville as stops on their itineraries.
The reason companies like American Cruise Lines are able to reopen so quickly is due, in part, to the smaller size of their ships.
Charles Robertson, ACL's CEO, said most of their fleet's vessels falls under the 250-passenger limit covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "no sail" order, which bars the big cruise ship operators from sailing until at least the end of July.
Robertson said ACL is taking the added step of restricting its passenger load to no more than 75% of capacity to be able to allow for social distancing, as well as to accommodate medical staff on board.
"It allows us to have a core group of passengers and frees up state rooms for medical staff and spaces out crew members," Robertson said. "There is no particular magic to the 75% number, but when we're at normal capacity each passenger has about 350 square feet of space, on average. When we reduce to 75% that goes up to 450 square feet."
That compares to an average of 140 square feet of space per passenger on the large cruise ships.
The restricted passenger numbers also mean that room service can be offered to each room for every mealtime, while the dining room itself will never be more than 50% full.
Robertson said that there has been keen interest in getting back to cruising from its repeat-customer base, but he doesn't expect the first sailing will be booked up.
The restricted capacity on the American Harmony will be 135, "but we expect it to be less than that, truthfully, and we're OK with that," Robertson said.
The passenger profile for the riverboat cruises skews toward older and more affluent guests, and any kind of coronavirus outbreak on early cruises would be a disaster for their reputation, Robertson acknowledges.
American Queen Steamboat Co. CEO John Waggoner told "Cruise Critic" magazine last week that the company has partnered with Ochsner Health to provide a health screening in passengers' hotel rooms the night before they board the boat.
The cruise lines have been in contact with excursion destinations, like Houmas House and Gardens and the USS Kidd Veterans Museum in Baton Rouge, to coordinate group visits.
ACL has a fleet of coaches that follow the boats on their journeys and will limit numbers and stagger the visits in coordination with venue operators, Robertson said.
The reopening of the two companies will revive a small but important part of the Port of New Orleans' cruise line business, which has suffered a severe blow since the spread of COVID-19 forced cruise lines to put a temporary pause on business.
The dry spell in cruise ship traffic on Port Nola was so severe that cruise ship passenger traffic for the month of April fell to zero from a little over 72,000 the previous month and from 161,000 in February.
The port reported that it lost $281,000 in April on its cruise ship operations, compared to revenue of more than $2 million in February before the pandemic began to curb passenger traffic.
Port Nola riverboat traffic is dwarfed by ocean-going vessels, which have not yet set any dates to resume sailings from Port Nola. Cruise ships accounted for 1.2 million passenger movements last year, compared to just over 31,000 for the six riverboats home-ported in New Orleans.
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