300 more sailings, B.C. Ferries loosens restrictions

B.C. Ferries is loosening some restrictions and increasing capacity as summer travel within the province grows.

Passenger numbers have risen to about 70 per cent of what they were at this time last year, said Tessa Humphries, communications manager for B.C. Ferries. In the early days of the pandemic, they were about 20 per cent of normal.

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Passenger capacity had been capped at 50 per cent, but that restriction is being phased out to increase service, Humphries said.

That level was set by Transport Canada, which gave operators a choice between limiting capacity and implementing enhanced cleaning and physical- distancing measures.

Humphries said B.C. Ferries implemented both measures at first but has now decided to phase out the capacity limit. B.C. Ferries consulted with Transport Canada on the change, she said.

Enhanced physical-distancing and cleaning protocols, including clear plastic barriers and face- coverings, remain in place. Passengers are asked whether they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms prior to travel, and those in vehicles are allowed to remain inside their cars.

More than 300 sailings per month have been added on major routes between the Island and the Lower Mainland since the start of June. The company is aiming to keep capacity about 20 per cent above demand, Humphries said.

“We will have fewer sailings than in summer schedules of the past, but significantly more than what was available as a result of the service cuts in April,” she said.

The company has also added an additional vessel on the route between Departure Bay and Horseshoe Bay on Fridays and Sundays, and a second vessel on the route that services the southern Gulf Islands on Thursdays through Mondays.

“We did also hear from the communities that there was a struggle for capacity there,” Humphries said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for sailings on Gulf Islands route to be completely booked.

Passengers travelling by car are encouraged to book in advance or choose less busy times to travel.

Humphries said B.C. Ferries expects it will take a couple of years before passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.

Onboard food services have resumed on some minor routes, including between Swartz Bay and the Gulf Islands, and the Passages gift shop reopened Friday on sailings between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen. Packaged food and limited hot food resumed on three major routes between the Island and the Lower Mainland in June.

The Lands End Café in the Swartz Bay terminal also recently reopened. Markets in the Departure Bay and Tsawwassen terminals reopened in late June.

The drop in ferry traffic has cost B.C. Ferries millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Humphries said the company is evaluating the financial situation daily and reopening onboard amenities will provide another revenue stream.

“But we’re all doing all of that carefully and gradually, as well as safely reintroducing these services,” she said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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