A cruise ship docks in Santa Barbara waters on Wednesday, the first since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency. Eleven more arrive this spring. While the vast majority of passengers tend to be domestic, fears are bubbling in Santa Barbara about the threat of cruise ship passengers, some of them international, bringing the virus onshore. Anxieties surged with the news about the Diamond Princess vessel in Japan, responsible for the spread of the virus from 10 people to 700 kept in quarantine aboard the ship for two weeks.
“Were I in charge, I would not let one more cruise ship dock here. It is an invitation to disaster if just one person on any given ship is a carrier!” wrote Ernest Salomon in a letter to Mayor Cathy Murillo. Salomon, for many years a Santa Barbara booster and critic before retiring from public access television, added, “Government has to come out with a positive statement.” He is concerned 35,000 or more travelers and crew members could come ashore by spring, “and the city isn’t meeting about this until March 10. This is a serious thing.”
But banning big ships is not so simple. Cruise ships in Santa Barbara contribute almost $4 million to the economy. Passengers’ reported spending averages $110 per party, according to a 2016 Visit Santa Barbara survey, the most recent commissioned by the tourism promotion group.
“As of right now the city will continue cruise ship visits,” said the mayor. “We are following the CDC guidelines. There has been no cancellation of international travel.” The county’s Public Health Department and the city’s new waterfront director, Mike Wiltshire, backed the mayor up, stating on Tuesday that cruise ship standards regarding COVID-19 include “denying boarding to passengers who have traveled from countries of concern, as well as increased screening procedures.”
As well, for both passengers and crew members coming from domestic and international ports of entry, health screenings prior to boarding are mandatory. Guests and crew with a suspect travel history are prohibited from boarding a cruise ship destined for Santa Barbara. Sanitation measures must be met, and Public Health is informed of any communicable disease onboard before the ship arrives.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) increased the Notice of Arrival for inbound vessels from four days to 14, however, along with the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, which have authority over vessel quarantine. The two latter agencies are actively tracking vessels, crew demographics, and recent ports of call. Each vessel is evaluated for exposure and infection.
“Cruise ships will not be allowed to port/disembark in Santa Barbara unless safe to do so,” said Nina Johnson, senior assistant city administrator.
No cases of COVID-19 have been identified at the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, or Hueneme to date. Should concern arise for any vessel in Southern California, the Coast Guard is responsible for sharing all relevant information to ensure public health concerns are addressed. In the event a passenger or crew member tests positive for COVID-19, the ship would be diverted to one of the three West Coast quarantine stations: San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego.
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