SSA: Full steam ahead

Coronavirus won’t slow ferry traffic until government, demand, or sickness intervenes.

SSA board members, sitting six feet apart and two of them participating remotely, talk COVID-19 and its effects on ferry service. - George Brennan

Updated 3/18

Customers will have more time to reschedule ferry trips with the change fees waived, and the Steamship Authority board is authorizing general manager Robert Davis to make schedule modifications and explore a line of credit should the pandemic adversely affect the ferry service’s cash flow.

In a unanimous vote, board members agreed to the requests by Davis, which also includes a Nantucket-specific recommendation that the SSA no longer provide “driver assist” for vehicles loaded on the ferry on one end with no driver, to protect the safety of employees.

All of these provisions are being made in reaction to novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

The Steamship Authority board meeting was held in the Falmouth office with a limited crowd. It was chairman Jim Malkin, the Vineyard representative’s, first meeting. Two members — Robert Ranney and Moira Tierney — attended the meeting remotely.

Members sat six feet apart, and a minimal amount of chairs were scattered in the meeting room. On the door, signs alerted the public that the meeting room was closed, but the SSA set up a way for the public to participate via conference call.

Davis also reported the steps put in place to protect customers and crew, including asking vehicle passengers to stay in their vehicles. Space is being left between vehicles so that passengers can get out in an emergency, he said. Hand-sanitizing stations have been added in terminals, and signs have been erected asking customers to practice “social distancing.”

The SSA’s buses are being cleaned every four hours, and terminals are being cleaned once every eight-hour shift, Davis said. Things like handrails, door handles, and credit card machines are being cleaned more frequently, he said.

Ferries allow for social distancing better than other mass transit because of the size, he said.

Davis said employees are being encouraged to stay home if they are sick, and if someone shows up sick they’ll be sent home, even if it means canceling a crossing. He’s asking that passengers also not ride if they’re sick, because some of their fellow travelers are headed to doctor’s appointments with compromised immune systems because of chemotherapy treatments. “Don’t be selfish,” he said.

Board member Robert Jones agreed with the safety precautions, but made comments that indicated he sees the risk as being minimal. “We don’t know where this is heading. Overreacting can almost be as bad as reacting,” Jones said.

Davis said there are no plans to curtail service. “Let me be emphatic that the health and safety of our passengers and our employees is our No. 1 priority. We take deeply seriously our responsibilities to be the lifeline to the Islands,” he said. “So in no uncertain terms, let me say that we will continue to run unless we are ordered to stop by the state or federal authorities. Service cutbacks may be inevitable if our crews experience illness or demand takes a sharp decline.”

Much of the signage and hand sanitizing that’s been put into place has been in the past few days. Sanitizing wipe stations went up March 11 in the Vineyard Haven terminal and outside of the terminals near the slips; there have been no signs for those customers who never enter the terminal building.

On Wednesday, the Centerplate, the company with the food service contract, stopped serving on the ferry out of concern for their employees, Driscoll said. “We agreed with that decision,” he said.

Davis said there are no plans to screen passengers. The SSA has no legal authority to do it, and even if they did do it, it would require bringing in healthcare professionals.

After the meeting, Malkin declined to comment on the slow reaction of the SSA to the coronavirus crisis, saying he had just been elected to the board when thousands of Vineyarders went off-Island for winter break and returned from countries around the world dealing with the outbreak. “I am concerned about what we are doing going forward. I want to make sure that we’re proactive and we’re doing everything that is legally, ethically, and morally right for everybody concerned,” he said. “I’m really not going to speak to what happened in the past. I want to make it right going forward.”

As for the line of credit, board members stopped short of that authorization, saying they think it’s premature. Davis said if ferry service is interrupted going into the SSA’s busy season, it could hurt the bottom line. The ferries run in deficit in the early part of the season, and then make it back when the Islands are flooded with tourists and seasonal homeowners.

Davis said the authority could need up to $10 million to get through the season, depending on how long service is curtailed or diminished — if it ever is.

New Bedford representative Moira Tierney pushed back hard against the line of credit, and even sought to delay a $225,000 authorization for a change order for the Woods Hole terminal project.

“We don’t want to tie you down, but we don’t want to give you the farm,” Jones added.

Despite anecdotal evidence that seasonal residents have arrived on both the Vineyard and Nantucket in recent weeks in large numbers, the numbers don’t completely back that up. There have been 78 fewer vehicle trips (not including freight) between Woods Hole and Vineyard Haven in the first two weeks of March, but passengers were up 1,237.

In other business, the board tabled a discussion of adding P&B Bus service from Woods Hole to Logan and Woods Hole to T.F. Green in Rhode Island after learning that there are no guarantees that the schedule won’t clash with already existing Peter Pan service. Davis also revealed the SSA has no formal agreement with Peter Pan that can be found, because it predates his administration.

Board member Kathryn Wilson, the Falmouth representative, raised the most objections because it would add to the congestion in Woods Hole — something already on the minds of her constituents.

While John Cogliano, a part-owner of P&B, made the case that it would take cars off the roads, Wilson said she’d like Falmouth selectmen to weigh in on the service. P&B is awaiting word from the Falmouth Economic Development & Industrial Corp. to see if it can get a stop in Falmouth Center for the bus service, as well.

Updated to include information about food service on the boats. -ed.