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Jack Knox: Coho likely a go after U.S. opens border Nov. 8

With the U.S. revealing when it will open its borders to Canadians, the MV Coho has inched closer to returning to service.
The MV Coho ferry, which travels between Victoria and Port Angeles, arrives in the Inner Harbour in Victoria on March 3, 2020. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

With the U.S. revealing when it will open its borders to Canadians, the MV Coho has inched closer to returning to service.

The decision won’t likely come until Monday, but the operator of the Port Angeles-Victoria ferry is leaning toward resuming the run on Nov. 11 or 12. It would re-establish a link broken since March 2020.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to go,” said Black Ball president Ryan Burles after the U.S. announced Friday that it would open its land and ferry crossings to fully vaccinated Canadians as of Nov. 8.

(Currently, Canadians travelling to the U.S. for non-essential purposes may enter only by air.)

There’s still much to work out before Black Ball will make a firm decision, though. Late Friday came word that the U.S. will allow entry to Canadians with mixed doses of vaccines, removing one barrier. The company still worries, though, about the impact of Canada’s requirement that anyone entering this country show proof of a recent negative COVID test. (The Americans only require such tests of those entering the U.S. by air.)

Now, the easing of U.S. restrictions makes some people nervous, as did Canada’s decision to admit fully vaccinated American tourists in August. While some Canadians can’t wait to go south, others, leery of U.S. pandemic hot spots, would rather jam a meat thermometer in their ears. They also worry about their neighbours going to the States, and bringing back COVID as a souvenir.

Others don’t see it as being that simple. Victoria’s Marsha Birney said she wouldn’t go to, say, Dallas, Texas, but feels safe hanging out with her aging aunt at the family’s lakeside ­property across the strait in Clallam County.

In fact, that’s what the Port Angeles-raised Birney did this summer. She was able to use her U.S. passport to drive there, but it was a 12-hour odyssey that meant taking B.C. Ferries to Tsawwassen, crossing the border at the Peace Arch, then working her way across the Olympic Peninsula.

Under U.S. travel rules, her husband Bill, a Canadian, was allowed to enter the U.S. only by air, so he flew from Victoria to Vancouver to Seattle, then boarded a bus for Port Angeles. “I could never understand why he could fly but not come in the car with me,” Birney said.

So, yes, a 1 ½-hour crossing on the Coho is much more attractive, she said. “I would go down in a minute.”

But authorities will have to work out those COVID-testing logistics, Birney said. It proved a challenge finding somewhere in Port Angeles to book a ­molecular test and get the results within the 72-hour ­window Canada requires.

Some people told her she could get tested right away by going to the hospital and — cough, cough — claiming she thought she had COVID, but she didn’t want to do that. In the end, she went to a pharmacy for a rapid antigen test. Canada said the latter aren’t acceptable for crossing the border, but it was the best she could do.

“They’ve got to make the ­testing easier,” she said.

Those are the sorts of hurdles with which Burles is wrestling. He knows the price — around $175 — and logistics of a PCR test will cost the Coho many of the customers who would normally pop back and forth across the strait for a couple of days. What Black Ball is banking on is that Vancouver Island snowbirds heading south would be less deterred by the tests, and that they would prefer to take the Port Angeles route than deal with the Blaine border crossing and Seattle traffic.

While Friday’s ­announcement was about Canadians going south, the return of the Coho would also re-establish a connection for Port Angeles residents long used to sailing to Victoria for everything from Christmas shopping to dentistry.

Before the border closed, some used the ferry to commute to work. One Port Angeles man volunteered at the Royal B.C. Museum.

“You don’t miss your water until the well runs dry,” is the way Port Angeles’s Alan Turner described the severed link ­Friday. He misses coming to Victoria for an urban, sophisticated experience. He misses lunch at Wah Lai Yuen on Fisgard. It bugs him that in his store, Port Book and News, there’s a blank space on the newspaper rack where the Times Colonist would normally be.

And on those rare days when the Coho still sounds its horn, normally part of the soundtrack of Port Angeles life, Turner gets a lump in his throat.