Passenger Vessels

River Cruise Lines Reopening; July Sailing Dates For American Queen

Two American river cruise passenger companies have announced their cruise schedules for summer 2020. American Cruise Lines will be first out of the gate, with cruises on its vessel American Song set to begin June 20 on the Columbia and Snake river system. ACL’s brand-new American Harmony is set to depart from Memphis, Tenn., June 28. At press time, Mississippi River cruises with late June starting dates were still listed on the company’s website.

American Queen Steamboat Company had originally planned to resume river cruising close to those dates, but American Queen CEO and President John Waggoner announced May 27 that the company was extending its cruise resumption dates into July.

The company said the new timeline was prepared in response to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and following the continued widespread governmental restrictions across ports, cities and public institutions. The company also recently announced new health protocols.

“We are excited to get back on the rivers and deliver the high-quality experience we are known for,” Waggoner said. “As we look to our new relaunch dates, the wellbeing of our guests, crew and partners remains our top concern. Our recent partnership with Ochsner Health in addition to our enhanced health and safety protocols and easy access to U.S. healthcare facilities allows us to responsibly and safely resume operations in our two key markets, the Pacific Northwest and the Lower and Upper Mississippi River.”

The company said the American Empress, which sails the Columbia and Snake rivers, will extend its suspension through July 5 and will resume operating the July 6–13 Pacific Northwest Splendors sailing from Portland (Vancouver, Wash.) to Spokane (Clarkston, Wash.).

The American Duchess, which sails on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, will extend its suspension through July 19 and will resume its operations with the July 20–27 Mark Twain’s Mississippi sailing from St. Louis, Mo. (Alton, Ill.) to Minneapolis, Minn. (Red Wing).

The American Countess, the latest paddlewheeler to join the fleet on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, and the American Queen will extend their suspensions through July 15, 2020. The company said it is reviewing specific restart dates and will announce both vessels’ debut itineraries in the coming weeks.

Both companies’ vessels fall below a 250-passenger limit set by the Centers for Disease Control. Passenger vessels above that limit have been shut down by the CDC until July 24, or whenever preparations by the larger passenger vessels to prevent or limit the spread of COVID-19 are approved.

There has been no passenger cruising since early March, when coronavirus restrictions began. Outbreaks aboard a few blue-water passenger cruise vessels early in the crisis received wide publicity.

In an earlier interview with trade magazine Cruise Critic, Waggoner explained that vessels with fewer than 250 passengers that are American-built, -owned and -operated fall under the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration rather than directly under the CDC, like larger vessels.

The FDA has already approved his company’s CDC-guided plans to maintain social distancing aboard vessels, sanitize surfaces and maintain other virus-fighting measures. The company has partnered with Louisiana-based Ochsner Health, the state’s largest nonprofit healthcare system, and its Safe to Return to Work program. The program checks all the company protocols, policies and procedures, Waggoner said, including a pre-cruise screening questionnaire and temperature monitoring. Meals will have two separate seatings, and diners will be kept distanced. Floor shows will be spaced to allow for more showings. Buses that follow the boats to take passengers to various sites will operate at half capacity. Fogger machines like those used at airports will be used to disinfect rooms.

However, Waggoner admitted that the Coast Guard had questioned whether vessels that can normally operate with more than 250 passengers and crew, like its Snake River vessels, shouldn’t be subjected to direct CDC oversight; at the time, he said those discussions were ongoing. The American Queen has a rated capacity of 436 passengers.

Despite the challenges and restrictions, Waggoner said he was optimistic. He reported that bookings for 2021 are up 33 percent. One factor is that those who might have gone river cruising overseas no longer have that option, at least until travel restrictions ease, and are turning to American rivers.