A first for WSF: Stay off ferries unless it's essential

Ridership way down as a result of coronavirus restrictions

Series: Coronavirus | Story 56

Last updated 3/26/2020 at 9:02am

Brian Soergel

A Washington State Ferry pulls into Edmonds in this file photo.

As you might guess, ridership on state ferries has decreased significantly in the past few weeks due to stay-at-home orders and the increase in working remotely.

Even though that means Washington State Ferries is taking a significant hit with lost revenue, ferry officials are urging Washingtonians to limit ferry travel, unless it's essential, as part of the effort to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the state's response to COVID-19, all state ferries will remain operating on their winter sailing schedules through at least April 25 due to the drastically decreasing numbers.

Washington State Ferries' spring season, which includes increased service on some routes, was originally scheduled to begin March 29. The ferry system is considered part of the state's highway system and is an essential service.

"If you're up in the San Juan Islands or on Vashon Island, you're really dependent on ferries for just about everything," said WSF spokesman Ian Sterling.

The biggest drop in ridership is on the Seattle-Bainbridge route, which Sterling said is down more than 60% in foot traffic as commuters trade office space for working remotely.

On the Edmonds-Kingston route, ridership is down about 38% (42% passengers and 35% vehicles), said WSF's Justin Fujioka, while across all routes the number is 46%.

That's averaging daily ridership from last week (March 15-21) and comparing it with an average of daily ridership the last week of February (Feb. 23-Feb. 29).

"That's a bigger drop than the system-wide average," said Fujioka, "but not as much as the Seattle-Bainbridge route. Mukilteo-Clinton has seen some of the smallest drops."

The coronavirus restrictions also canceled a daily run to Sidney, British Columbia, from Anacortes-Friday Harbor.

Previously made vehicle reservations for the Anacortes/San Juan Islands route from March 29 through April 25 are canceled. No new spring schedule reservations will be allowed after April 25.

Customers will be notified through ferry alerts when reservations will be available on sailings during the winter schedule extension. No-show fees for vehicle reservations are waived until further notice.

The extension of the winter sailing schedules prepares WSF for effects of COVID-19 that could disrupt service, Sterling said, including a significant decrease in ridership due to public health recommendations and availability of sufficient crew personnel to meet federal requirements

"We know schedule changes affect many people and we don't make these decisions lightly," said Amy Scarton, head of WSF. "But following discussions with health authorities and state officials we had to make this difficult decision in order to help slow the spread of the virus while still preserving some service options."

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While this is generally a slow time of year for WSF, and there are many factors that contribute to day-to-day fluctuations in ridership like weather and special events, system-wide ridership has been consistently down. Scarton said this means about 15,000 to 30,000 fewer riders compared with the same days in late February 2020 and dates in 2019, numbers which are certainly continuing to rise.

Emergency medical services have been notified of the schedule changes and will continue to have priority boarding as the situation allows.

Passengers can help halt the spread of the virus with good hygiene practices, Sterling said. That includes washing their hands, covering coughs and sneezes, maintaining 6 feet of social distance with others, staying in their vehicles on the ferry if they choose, and by following the recommendations of the CDC, the state Department of Health, and local public health agencies.

Sterling stresses that drivers remaining in their vehicles while on ferries are an important part of limiting transmittable diseases such as COVID-19. This also helps to keep ferry workers safe, as in the worst-case scenario ferries would have to suspend operations if there aren't enough healthy employees.

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"We have robust cleaning procedures," he said. "The vessels are cleaned in between every single departure, with deeper cleans once per shift, and that's every eight to 10 hours depending on where the route is or what shifts are working. We continue to look at different ways to clean with approved cleaning products on the list to kill the coronavirus.

"We also remind our crews to be diligent, but all of us have a responsibility in this. And we're asking people not to travel on the ferry, really the first time that I can ever think of that we would ask people not to travel unless it's absolutely essential to them."

Real-time traffic information is available at wsdot.com/traffic or by dialing 511.


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