(Updated 11: 54 a.m. EDT) -- The first U.S. cruise to set sail since the COVID-19 pandemic began has returned to Juneau after cutting short its voyage to Alaska after a passenger received notification he had tested positive for the virus.
UnCruise Adventures' Wilderness Adventurer, which left Juneau on Saturday for a weeklong cruise with 37 passengers and 30 crewmembers onboard, docked in the port city Wednesday morning, with all passengers being transferred to a local hotel where they will be placed into quarantine until doctors and state officials determine it is safe for them to leave. Crew will quarantine onboard the boat.
In announcing the news of the positive test Tuesday, expedition cruise line UnCruise Adventures issued a news release and held a subsequent late-night online news conference, where owner and CEO Dan Blanchard earnestly took questions from journalists, calling the situation "sad."
"Even with all our protocols, testing and social distancing, we didn't sneak by this guy," Blanchard said of the virus.
Anyone traveling to Alaska is required to show proof of a negative result from a COVID test taken within three days of arriving to the state. Alternatively, people can show proof of a negative test taken within five days of arrival; those people then additionally have to take a second test at the airport on arrival. (The policy changes August 11, when only the three-day option is available.)
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The passenger identified as infected, an American who resides in the lower 48, took the five-day option; the first test produced a negative result, but the second test, taken in Juneau, was positive. The state of Alaska contacted the passenger while he was on the trip. He was asymptomatic and traveling with four companions.
Blanchard called the risk of spread in Juneau "minimal," as the passenger arrived the day of the sailing and spent little time in Juneau. Blanchard said the passenger and his traveling companions were tested again aboard Wilderness Adventurer on Tuesday night for COVID-19. Those samples have been sent to the lab in Juneau.
As of Wednesday morning, netiher the infected passenger or other passengers and crew were showing any symptoms, according to the company. Passengers had isolated themselves in their cabins, where plated meals were served. UnCruise will cover the costs for the hotel stay and meals while passengers are quarantined, and passengers have been provided with detailed documentation on everything from how to secure necessary medications to laundry service. Additionally, passengers are being issued full cruise credits to be used on future sailings.
"We are focusing all efforts on care of the guests, crew and the local community," Blanchard said in a statement. "This is very discouraging news and not what we had hoped for, but we'll deal with it professionally. The guests are taking the news well, and the crew has executed our contingency plan quickly."
Wilderness Adventurer left to some fanfare Saturday, with Blanchard hosting Facebook Live events to show the ship leaving as well as highlighting the number of protocols the line had put in place. Part of those protocols, which UnCruise said took months of preparation, include a contingency plan in case COVID is identified onboard. The exhaustive plan, which had to be submitted to authorities before the ship set sail, includes having tests onboard, reserving rooms at a hotel in case they were needed for quarantine and heading immediately back to port in case someone tested positive.
The company is working with state and local health officials to additionally comply with their own safety standards, including contact-tracing protocols.
While Blanchard said he had minimal contact with the infected passenger, he said he will undergo a COVID test as soon as it makes sense to do so and that he is isolating. Passengers and crew onboard probably won't be tested right away because the virus it takes a few days to incubate.
"With the spotlight on the cruise and small boat industry, we understand there are risks in operating and travel in general. With months of preparation, we were still able to pivot quickly in response to this event," Blanchard said in the statement. "We wish to thank those that have worked rapidly to isolate and implement the appropriate processes as we determine the next steps."
Ahead of the cruise, Blanchard was upbeat in speaking about the natural social distancing that comes with adventure cruising in general and with UnCruise specifically. Additionally, he spoke about when passengers would wear masks and how the company would ensure social distancing onboard. At the news conference, Blanchard noted that none of those measures would have prevented the current situation, however.
The company has canceled the planned four additional sailings this season on Wilderness Adventurer and is working with passengers on those cruises. Instead, the boat will head to the shipyard to get it ready for next season.
"It's not worth the risk," Blanchard said of sailing in the current environment. "It can sneak on there. … It's sobering. It's really sobering."
He said he thinks the best chance for travel to resume while COVID still looms would be the availability and implementation of rapid testing.
"I can say the two things that could have changed this situation are a vaccine and rapid testing," Blanchard said. "Had we had the availability for rapid testing -- and trust me, we tried ... it's a challenging situation."
On a positive note, Blanchard said the mood of passengers and crew onboard remained upbeat and understanding.
"I can tell you the guesst are bummed but understanding," he said in a second news conference Wednesday morning. "They had four fabulous days, truly. They're just sobered by the fact this has happened ... but we're not getting any overt negative comments from the guests or crew."
The news comes on the heels of several international lines, which also had resumed sailing, reporting cases of COVID-19 onboard their ships. Norwegian company Hurtigruten reported an outbreak among crew members as well as passengers, while Paul Gauguin reported one case onboard its ship, Paul Gauguin, sailing in French Polynesia.