(10:15 a.m. EDT) -- Everything seemed to be a go.
As one of the small ship cruise lines exempt from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "no sail" order, American Cruise Lines had planned to be the first U.S. company to return to operations, with a weeklong journey through the Pacific Northwest onboard American Song beginning June 20.
The company spent months laying the groundwork, introducing stringent health protocols, partnering with Vikand Solutions, a heavyweight in maritime health and safety services, and communicating with public health officials in Oregon and Washington, where the ship would be sailing.
The 60 passengers onboard, including four journalists -- one from Cruise Critic, were prepped on what to expect onboard, how health screenings and check-in would be handled. We were ready to witness the first changes in biggest changes when it comes to small-ship cruising in an era still dealing with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The line even mailed off PPEs -- disposable masks, American Cruise Lines branded cloth face coverings, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves -- to passengers so they would have everything they would need before boarding. Crew were tested for the virus, cleared and strictly quarantined, and they were thoroughly instructed in the new protocols they'd be enforcing.
It's fair to say every detail for the journey had been finalized. Then, Oregon modified its Phased Reopening Plan to exclude all overnight river cruises. Just like that -- less than 24 hours before many passengers were due to arrive -- the trip was canceled.
COVID-19 Era Presents New Challenges
These types of last-minute postponements represent a new reality that we might have to get used to, at least in the near term. There was little American Cruise Lines could have done to prevent the 11th-hour decision.
"COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges for community and state leaders across the country, and we are very empathetic to the situation in Oregon," American Cruise Lines said in a statement. "We were surprised and disappointed by the last-minute changes but understand the difficulty leaders face in that state. We hope to participate in reviving the state's economy and still believe we are uniquely positioned to do so. We will continue to do our best to support all our local partners throughout the region and look forward to resuming small ship cruising in the Pacific Northwest in the very near future."
Many experts in the cruise industry believe small-ship and river cruising might be the first to return, in part because these options won't necessarily require international travel and full-scale overseas leisure travel isn't likely to return for the foreseeable future. If Americans can sail on American cruise lines, though, it eliminates some of the logistical hurdles, like working with foreign health agencies and sorting through travel restrictions.
But last week's cancellation drives home the point that despite even the best-laid plans, the cruise industry continues to face challenges. The return to the Pacific Northwest, where COVID-19 has been spiking again, is in doubt. The best estimate for American Cruise Lines' return to that region is July 25 at the earliest.
Things look more optimistic for Mississippi River sailings, and American Cruise Lines plans to sail there July 12, which would still make them the first line to set sail from a U.S. port since the worldwide suspension of cruising in mid-March. (Beyond being exempt from the CDC ban on cruising, CLIA's recent announcement that its member cruise lines were suspending operations until September 15 does not apply to ships sailing with fewer than 250 people; ACL is a CLIA member.)
Even with a situation beyond the company's control, American Cruise Lines President and CEO Charles B. Robertson was apologetic in his email to guests, offering booked passengers either a full refund or a cruise voucher worth 125 percent of all amounts paid. In addition, those who picked the cruise credit and are part of the cruise line's Eagle Society loyalty program were offered a free cruise on the July 12 Mississippi River sailing.
Others Are Eying The Mississippi, Too
ACL is not the only one temporarily shifting its return attention from sailings on the Snake and Columbia rivers in the Pacific Northwest to the Mississippi River. American Queen Steamboat Company, which also offers cruises in both destinations, has planned to return to cruising the upper Mississippi, from St. Louis to Minneapolis, beginning July 20 on American Duchess.
Like ACL, American Queen Steamboat Company has unveiled detailed health and safety measures for passengers and crew, worked tirelessly with local agencies and partnered with Ochsner Health, Louisiana's largest nonprofit healthcare system, to aid in the return.
But both companies will have to continue to be bound by the policies and procedures put in place by the states they visit, and as COVID-19 cases continue to spike around the U.S., guidelines can change often and quickly.
American Queen Steamboat Company has gotten clearance from the U.S. Coast Guard, the CDC and even the FDA, but state government and health agencies can choose to reject the plans. The line has suspended operations of its sole Pacific Northwest ship, American Empress, until July 19 but has not yet announced an itinerary on which it will resume.
John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Company, says his cruise line is reviewing the latest information daily and is in continuous contact with the governors' offices in the states his ships will visit. And while national health and government agencies have signed off on the company's plans for resumption, they are taking a careful approach.
"The last thing we want to do is force our way in," Waggoner told Cruise Critic, adding the partnership with these precious ports are important.
With so-called COVID-19 "hot zones" popping up in port cities in the Pacific Northwest, particularly those in Oregon, like Portland, it's not surprising that Mississippi River itineraries offer a solid alternative.
Additionally, Waggoner said the Mississippi River is more of a drive-to market than its PNW itineraries. This means the Mississippi River voyages might attract passengers who are leery of flying and traveling through airports. And for economic reasons, many of the ports along those Mississippi itineraries are anxious for the cruise ships to return.
"The rivers of the USA are some of our greatest natural treasures and the perfect place to resume cruising in the United States," American Cruise Lines Public Relations Manager Alexa Paolella said. "Working with the communities, state governments, and federal regulators, American is proud to offer cruises this July on the Mississippi. They will be soon followed by cruises on the Columbia River, as well as in Alaska and New England. We look forward to being back on the water with our guests."
Both American river cruise lines have said they are regularly communicating with their guests, and they're offering flexible cancellation policies for passengers who might have second thoughts about the cruise they've booked.
For the most flexible passengers, those who go in realizing that plans could change at the last minute and are OK with less certainty, the opportunity to be among the first to return to cruising is promising and exciting. And all eyes are on these cruise lines as they ready to make their returns.
"People do want to travel," Waggoner said. "They do want to get out there."