MUKILTEO — Leaders of the Washington State Ferries system are imploring people to skip recreational travel on their vessels this holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Holidays typically are busy stretches for the state’s ferries. But people are asked to use them only for essential purposes over the coming Christmas and New Year holidays.
“With guidance to limit gatherings during a time we normally spend with family and friends, the holidays will be different for many this year,” said Amy Scarton, head of Washington State Ferries, in a news release.
Last year, the Edmonds and Mukilteo routes were two of the busiest in the state, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data. More than 4.1 million riders used each route — between Edmonds and Kingston and between Clinton and Mukilteo.
This year, ferry ridership has dropped about 45% across the system as people adhered to a stay-home order issued in March.
The pandemic hit retail revenue, especially in places that rely on tourism, such as Edmonds and Langley. City budgets depend on sales tax revenue to fund most general government services, including administration, parks and public safety.
Between January and September, revenue in the small south Whidbey Island city of Langley dropped almost 50% from 2019’s total.
“Travel and tourism has been off quite noticeably,” Langley Mayor Tim Callison said.
But sales and use tax, especially what’s generated from island residents, has been stable through the pandemic, he said. Langley leaders estimate about a 10% to 15% drop in that revenue, resulting in revenue similar to that in 2017 and 2018.
Langley was one of the state’s first cities to declare a face-covering mandate, and the city dedicated funds for its businesses to adhere to public health guidelines by buying personal protective equipment, Callison said. The city also allowed downtown businesses to occupy public parking on First and Second streets so people could dine outside or pick up their orders.
“If you get your pizza across the street, you can walk over and sit under the tent in the salt air,” Callison said.
On the mainland side of that route, Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson didn’t anticipate adverse effects from lower holiday ferry travel.
“I think it’s a great recommendation,” she wrote in an email. “I don’t expect it will impact the city, other than possibly shorter back-up lines making it easier for residents to leave their homes and travel in the city.”
Downtown Edmonds’ proximity to the ferry terminal lets people bound for Kingston grab lunch or stroll during long waits in summer. It also is accessible to people living on the Olympic Peninsula as a dining and shopping destination.
“With fewer people traveling across, I’m sure that’s been a financial impact to a lot of our restaurants and shops,” Greater Edmonds Chamber of Commerce President Greg Urban said.
Lower holiday season travel could further eat away at that revenue this year, he said. But if people keep their hometown shops and eateries in mind beyond the holidays, that could bolster the normal sales slump season in January and February.
“Holidays are an important time, generally when they make their year,” Urban said.
Even with the advice to only travel for essential purposes, ships and terminals could be busy the next two weeks, with long wait times, according to Washington State Ferries. Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas on Friday, and the Saturday and Sunday following the holiday, are expected to be the busiest.
Historically, fewer people ride a ferry the week of New Year’s Eve.
Taking an early morning or late-evening sailing can help drive-on passengers avoid the wait around the holidays.
Walk-on passengers could be affected by reduced occupancy in terminals and on vessels, which is done to maintain physical distance standards.
There are requirements for ferry riders and schedule changes to keep in mind.
Ferry passengers must wear face coverings while on the ships and at the terminal, including at toll booths. They can remove masks while inside a vehicle.
Several routes have modified service this year because of COVID-19, in addition to holiday schedules:
• Mukilteo to Clinton, Seattle to Bainbridge and Seattle to Bremerton: The final daily round trips are suspended.
• Edmonds to Kingston: The final round trip is suspended on Fridays and Saturdays.
• Anacortes to the San Juan Islands: Winter schedule (no Sidney, British Columbia, service).
• Fauntleroy to Vashon to Southworth: A two-boat schedule instead of three; late-night sailings suspended.
• The Edmonds-to-Kingston, Mukilteo-to-Clinton and Point Defiance-to-Tahlequah routes have schedule changes set for Friday, Dec. 25, and Friday, Jan. 1.
• The Mukilteo-to-Clinton route will not be served from 1 a.m. to 5:35 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29, as the Washington State Department of Transportation prepares to open the new Mukilteo Ferry Terminal. The first departure that day is scheduled for 6:10 p.m.
Riders should stay current on terminal and vessel capacity through email alerts; by checking terminal conditions and the ferry system’s COVID-19 travel updates before leaving; by making a vehicle reservation for the Anacortes-San Juan Islands and Port Townsend-Coupeville routes; and by checking real-time traffic information on the Washington State Department of Transportation app for mobile devices.