Coho ferry owner suspends service for at least a month

The COVID-19 outbreak has claimed its second ferry service in less than a week.

Following Clipper Vacations’ decision this week to stop passenger service between Victoria and Seattle, Black Ball Ferry has announced it will shut down the Coho ferry service between Victoria and Port Angeles on March 30.

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The decision comes as Canada and the U.S. jointly opt to close the border to non-essential travel.

Black Ball said it will continue service until the end of the month to bring home passengers from both sides of the border, and to provide commercial cargo service between the U.S. and Canada.

“These are unprecedented times, and we take our role as an essential-service provider seriously,” said Black Ball president Ryan Burles.

“Whether it’s a Canadian returning from their winter home or an American in a similar situation, we are remaining open until those passengers have been able to return to their loved ones.”

The company said it hopes to restart passenger service on April 30. Black Ball vice-president Ryan Malane said the company has been inundated with calls from Canadians wanting to get back from homes in the U.S.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of people wanting to get home — I guess you don’t really know how many snowbirds there are from the Island until there’s something like this,” he said. “We hope to stay running until the snowbird surge is done.”

Both Canada and the U.S. have said trade will continue and supply chains between the two partners will remain intact.

The ferry is a major commercial link between the two countries, but, despite the pledge that trade would not be interrupted, Black Ball said the economic case to run the ferry purely as a cargo operation could not be made.

A recent economic-impact study showed the Coho and Clipper ferries bring about 750,000 passengers to Victoria each year and as much as $300 million in cargo is ferried by the Coho between B.C. and Washington state annually.

On any given day, there are dozens of transport trucks on board the ferry carrying produce, seafood, dry goods, construction supplies, plants and nursery goods, softwood lumber and rock products between Canada and the U.S.

Black Ball, which also books tour packages, will cancel all bookings for hotels, attractions and leisure activities between March 30 and April 30. All cancellations will be automatically processed and refunded to the customer’s credit card.

Until it ceases operation, the ship will continue to operate with heightened cleaning and reduced food and beverage options, the company said. Sailings have been limited to fewer than 500 people, allowing for social-distancing. Its capacity is 1,000 people and about 115 cars. Passengers can remain in vehicles on the car deck.

“For decades, the MV Coho has been a longstanding link between two countries,” Burles said. “Our customers are like family to us and we want everyone to take care, be safe and stay healthy.”

Before service is suspended, the last sailing of the MV Coho from Port Angeles departs at 2 p.m. March 29 and the last sailing from Victoria departs at 4 p.m. the same day.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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