MUKILTEO — People planning to ride a state ferry this weekend ought to pack some extra snacks and a whole lot of extra patience.
Or better yet, stay home if it’s not essential travel.
Due to pandemic staffing, the Mukilteo-Clinton and Edmonds-Kingston routes will be on one-boat service on weekends during July, Washington State Ferries announced Wednesday afternoon.
The Fourth of July holiday weekend traditionally is one of the busiest of the year. Those two routes often have the highest vehicle ridership in the ferry system on a given day.
Translation: Happy four-hour ferry wait.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused crew shortages, fewer vessels due to maintenance shutdowns and lost revenue.
“This is not the fun ferry ride that you had last summer,” agency spokesman Ian Sterling said. “People assume that ferry service is going to just run normally. There is no transit agency in the world that’s running a normal schedule.”
The Mukilteo-Clinton route had waits of multiple hours when service was cut in half on Sunday, from two boats to one. Two workers on the route, who did not work in public areas, recently tested positive for the virus. Another who worked closely with them has been advised to self-quarantine.
The ferries scramble to have enough crew for voyages, even during normal summers. About 150 workers are out due to being at risk for the virus or exposure.
It’s only going to get worse, Amy Scarton, head of the ferries, said at Tuesday’s virtual community meeting about the agency’s finances and service plan. There is a hiring freeze, workers will be furloughed and training was halted for new employees.
Bainbridge Island, Bremerton and Port Townsend routes have been on one-boat sailings for some time. Service has been reduced to San Juan and Vashon islands.
Busiest sailings will likely be westbound Thursday, then eastbound Sunday as travelers return. Taking an early morning or late-evening ferry might lessen the wait. Leave your pyrotechnics at home. It is against the law to set off or carry fireworks aboard a ferry.
No more frolicking at sea with a glass of wine or a jigsaw puzzle, either. Galleys are closed, with areas taped off and puzzles gone from the tables. Restrooms are open. Face coverings are required. The loudspeaker urges people to stay in their cars.
Crews sanitize touch areas between sailings. At the end of the service day, vessels are sanitized top to bottom.
The ferry system, the largest in North America, had 24 millions riders in 2019. Due to the pandemic, overall ferry demand has dropped about 50%. Revenue has also taken a hit.
Even with sagging ridership, crews remain at risk.
“It’s scary for our frontline workers,” Sterling said. “You see hoards of tourists coming at you.”
A terminal worker at Colman Dock in Seattle died from complications due to COVID-19.
The weekday routes serve many commuters going to jobs considered essential. On weekends, there’s a surge in riders who come to the islands for recreational purposes.
“Non-essential travel is not supposed to be happening,” Sterling said. “We understand that people are stir-crazy.”
Many come to recreate from Snohomish and King counties, both in Phase 2 and with increased COVID-19 case numbers.
Island County is in Phase 3 due to low rates of infection, and officials want to keep it that way. The county Department of Emergency Management advised that residents “not travel to counties in Phase 1 or Phase 2.”
The Whidbey Island town of Langley issued a proclamation in May requiring people to wear masks everywhere in the business district, beaches included. Mayor Tim Callison said the order was triggered by people from off island congregating and not social distancing.