BC Ferries’ current ability to restrict and prohibit people from travelling has the same effect as a federal prohibition on sick travellers on ferries, but smaller operators may not have the same power.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on March 28 that people who are sick or who are symptomatic would not be allowed to travel via planes or trains within the country. Ferries were not included in the announcement, which prompted a call from the Canadian Ferry Association to be included. The association represents all ferry operators across Canada, including everything from small river ferries to large ocean-going vessels. Their call was to have ferries included in the restrictions because of that diversity, saying that national rules were required to ensure they fit all operational sizes.
“Like planes, there are small ferries and big ferries. There are significant differences between ferries. But rules addressing bans for people with COVID-19 symptoms to board ferries can be implemented throughout the sector,” said a release from CFA. “Ferries operate throughout the country. Some cross rivers and cover short distances while other can represent voyages of ten hours or more. There are municipal ferries and interprovincial ferries. The sector is varied and national leadership is required.”
BC Ferries is a member of the Canadian Ferry Association. However, BC Ferries staff have always reserved the right to prohibit people from travelling, though that right is typically used for people who are intoxicated or abusive to staff and other passengers.
“If we felt the need and someone was ill and would be a concern to other passengers, we would deny them travel,” said BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall.
BC Ferries has asked customers to not travel with them if they are sick, and that passengers only use ferries for essential travel. Since that announcement, BC Ferries has seen travel decrease by around 70 per cent, Marshall said. By asking customers to avoid travel if they are sick, and exercising the right to ban individual passengers, BC ferries is able to approximate the federal regulations without needing the official announcement.
“If customers are ill or are exhibiting any signs of illness, we’re asking them not to travel with us,” said Marshall. “I’m not seeing it being a whole lot different than what the federal announcement was regarding the other types of transportation systems.”
Since their purview is national and they speak for smaller regional operators, the CFA did feel the call was necessary to ensure rules apply to all ferry operators in the country.
A BC Ferries pandemic response plan has been initiated, and is currently at stage 4. That stage includes the reduction to essential traffic only and possible schedule changes. Marshall said other stages are possible and that BC Ferries is currently talking to the provincial government about reducing sailings further, but that they were not ready to release details of that plan.
“Now we are providing a lot of sailings that are going back and forth virtually empty. That puts our crew at risk, and if we can reduce some service then that helps keep our crew safe and resilient. If we’ve got employees who are sick, then they have to stay home and self-isolate,” said Marshall, adding that it would be preferable to have “a better pool of employees to draw on, instead of sending sailings back and forth with nobody travelling. That’s not a good use of our crew.”
Last week, the provincial government announced that ferries are an essential service, and that they would be maintaining the links between communities to ensure nobody is left behind.
“It is very important that we keep our ferry services going so we can keep our smaller communities going,” Marshall said. “People need groceries.”