Vineyarders fume over maskless ferry passengers

After hospital CEO decries commuting contractors without PPE, SSA makes no changes.

Islanders are upset that the Steamship Authority isn't requiring passengers to wear face coverings. – Lexi Pline

The Steamship Authority doesn’t require passengers to wear masks aboard its ferries. With the lifting of some local building restrictions on Monday, scores of contractors have returned to Vineyard work commutes. Many of them are not wearing masks as they cross Vineyard Sound, potentially risking either spreading the novel coronavirus or becoming infected with it. 

On Tuesday Martha’s Vineyard Hospital CEO Denise Schepici described the novel coronavirus as “an insidious virus with no boundaries.” She went on to express consternation at seeing people disembark in Vineyard Haven without masks.

“I was shocked and dismayed when I saw workers coming off the boat…at least half a dozen people didn’t have masks on,” she said. “Shocking to me, just shocking.”

Livid Vineyarders have unleashed their frustrations over social media on the subject of maskless ferry commuters — one even posting a video of commuters walking off, some without masks. On Islanders Talk, Rob Lytle, a candidate for the SSA board before Malkin was chosen, cast blame at state and federal levels.

“This is another case of a lack of federal leadership,” he posted. “The ferry operates in federal waters and is subject to federal regulation. People on planes, ferries, and busses should have been required to wear masks whenever they are not able to maintain social distance as soon as the CDC recommendation was made. But I also am skeptical that the Steamship can not update its conditions of passage to require wearing of masks during passenger boarding, interacting with Steamship employees and fellow passengers, or in situations where a social distance of at least 6 feet can not be maintained. Enforcing it is a whole different can of worms…but, at least, it creates an expectation.”

SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said Wednesday that the ferry line is “actively encouraging” passengers to wear masks. He said the notices are posted in many places aboard SSA ferries. 

On Monday Falmouth selectmen voted in a mask order for all public venues. At the terminal in Woods Hole, Driscoll said the order “wouldn’t have any legal effect” because the SSA is a state agency. Falmouth Health Agent Scott McGann said the order is limited to buildings as opposed to outdoor places, but it may extend to the SSA terminal.

“If they are on Falmouth property, I would enforce it,” he said.

McGann said he would consult with the town’s attorney on the subject.

On Wednesday Jim Malkin, chair of the SSA board and the Vineyard’s representative, confirmed the Steamship Authority is actively exploring a mask solution.

“We’re trying to come up with a protocol that’s practical, effective, and enforceable,” he said.

During a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker highlighted the importance of masks but said the onus was on local authorities to elevate the state’s advisory notice on their use and upgrade it to an order if they choose.

“We have an advisory out with respect to face coverings that basically is a statewide advisory, which is, if you can’t be … if you can’t socially distance, if you’re going to be someplace where you can’t socially distance, we urge you to wear a face covering or a mask and that’s to protect you from others and also to protect others from you,” he said. “I can’t say this enough. There’s a lot of evidence at this point that many of the people who contract COVID-19 don’t show symptoms but are, in fact, carriers and are contagious. That’s one of the reasons it’s important for people to wear face coverings or masks if they can’t socially distance. I think in many respects, in our point of view, locals are going to make decisions that they think are in their best interests. There are some communities that have put a requirement in place if you want to go to a grocery store, for example, that you need to wear a face covering or mask because they believe that’s a place where people are going to have trouble socially distancing, even with the changes we’ve put in place with respect to occupancy and some other issues there.”

Baker didn’t mention the SSA by name, but did touch upon the subject of public transportation. 

“I think as we go forward, we’re all going to be, in many cases and many circumstances, expected to wear a face covering or a mask — especially as we begin to reopen the economy,” he said. “Public transportation, for example, is one place where we’ve been tracking what people are doing in a lot of other countries …and I just think [it’s] going to a big part of the dialogue that the lieutenant governor and secretary [Mike] Kenneally are going to be working through.”  

The VTA is now requiring masks for its passengers on its fleet of buses.

Vineyard health and building departments have mandated the use of masks for jobsite workers. 

This was reflected in a post by Islander’s Talk moderator Lori Fisher Robinson.

“So many workers are trying to do the right thing, per town rules … safe distancing, masks , hand washing etc.,” she posted, “but there are some that are not and you are right in plain view of everyone seeing you. Please put your masks on, distance yourselves, be safe for you and us! Don’t mess up what [our] towns worked so hard to set in place so you can go to work … think and be well.”

In an interview with the Martha’s Vineyard Times Tuesday afternoon, SSA general manager Bob Davis was asked if Gov. Baker’s office or the U.S Coast Guard, two authorities he previously said would have to direct the ferry lines actions on masks, have weighed in.

“We’re trying to find out what the status is of those directives, whether there’s anything coming from the governor’s office or coming from the Coast Guard,” he said. “We’re not aware of any at the moment.”

The question becomes what happens if someone does not have a mask. We continue to try to source them for our employees, let alone having enough for our patrons.”

He went on to say there could be unintended consequences for Vineyarders. “What happens if it’s an Island resident, for instance, who needs to get home and we don’t have a mask to be able to provide them?”

HyLine Cruises, a private Hyannis ferry company that services Nantucket and the Vineyard,  recently adopted a mask policy however Driscoll said as a public transportation service, the SSA cannot so easily adopt a similar policy. Driscoll said the SSA is “having discussions” bent on addressing the “outcry” over masks and with public safety in mind. He said those considerations are being balanced against the SSA’s belief it presently doesn’t have the authority to deny passengers access to ferries in such a context.


  1. It almost goes without saying — Under Davis the SSA can’t sail and chew gum. How clueless is he?

    • It goes without saying that the people who voted for the people who voted for Davis can’t vote and chew gum.
      They are that clueless.

    • The SSA is dysfunctional as the the people who allow this Communist monstrosity to continue to exist.

      Make The Vineyard Great Again.
      Dissolve the SSA.
      Give the Vineyard the high quality year round service that private boat lines brought to Island prior to the the Communist takeover in 1960.

  2. What part of “the SSA cannot enforce restrictions to travelers” do you not understand?
    They have no police power or any authority of that nature over travelers.
    They can only suggest.
    The Hyline is a private enterprise, the can do as they see fit.
    This has nothing to do with SSA leadership, you are too quick to blame. They are trying to stop hemorrhaging money right now with the ridership and reservations taking a significant dive.
    They have enough to worry about.
    If you are that concerned, STAY HOME
    and NO I don’t work for the SSA, just sayin’

    • lol. Think about what you wrote — “They are trying to stop hemorrhaging money right now…..” Well one way to get increased ridership is to use common sense. Passengers won’t sail on a ferry that doesn’t seem to understand what a pandemic is. BTW — who is going to rat out the SSA for enforcing a mask order, and what would the penalties be? Ridiculous and rigid, thy name is the SSA.

      • Agreed. It’s in everyone’s best interests for them to make wearing masks official policy. Though it’s scary that passengers even need to be told that at this stage. Everyone should know.

    • hey view, what you said is not correct, the SSA has the total authority to bar any passenger from boarding for their own (the passengers) safety, ie: intoxication so why not the safety of the passenger without mask for their safety, just saying

  3. So the SSA can use state police at terminals, but they can’t enforce a mask requirement. That’s baloney. They are a state agency with broad powers. All they need to do is declare it so and it will be the requirement. The problem is enforcement. They really would need to pay state police on details to ride the boats. Short that maybe the staties that stand and do nothing could make the point at the terminals and could also enforce at disembarkation. This is really just another example of a useless board that just wants to collect their stipend and not rock the boat. (Pun intended)

  4. Taking out your anxiety about the virus on off islanders, seasonal workers, and seasonal residents is so far off base. Yes this is an island and we are all stuck here with our tiny hospital, but being an islander doesn’t make us special little snowflakes in charge of who comes and goes. We aren’t special because we make our life here its just our circumstance, this is still a free country and people have the right to come here, especially if they own homes here. It makes me sick as a born and raised islander to see the vitriol for the visitors we not only need to survive economically but who also contribute as much as us without using even half of the services they pay for. Let me reiterate we as islanders who live here year round do not have a right to tell people not to come and god forbid if they actually listen to the people telling them not to. If the virus spreads here then it does, do you really want to live in your house quarantined forever? If you are afraid then stay home and get everything delivered, do not try to stop everybody else’s life from going on and trying to get back to normal.

    • People are being encouraged not to travel. All people. Even the special little snowflakes here. This special little snowflake is going to do all I can to try not to get anybody sick. I’d like the same respect in return.

      • Your point is definitely taken, I wouldn’t be going off island for an unnecessary trip or go to the store to browse around for things I don’t need right now. I think there is just a lot of hysteria towards any and all new comers like they’re free wheeling virus carriers when all the 2nd home owners I’ve dealt with are taking more precautions than many at risk Islanders who think this isn’t a big deal. Most people I know are using common sense but the vocal minority of Islanders calling out anyone with out of state plate plates or calling the cops because they think it’s their civic duty to rat out others because of a mask are people I don’t want to represent our island.

        • Ahh, you must be a member of Islander’s Talk. So many of those “islanders” disgust me with their behavior during this pandemic.

  5. Come on, at least give the mask-less ferry ridership their proper due. They’re idiots. We wouldn’t need the SSA to enforce anything if that were not the case.

    • carl I agree with you. The captain of a ship actually does have “absolute” power over the ship and what goes on aboard it. There is no reason whatsoever to not have that policy in place. As for enforcement, if you don’t have a mask, you don’t get on the boat. Stat’s at least a start. If you have to have a mask on to go into a privately owned grocery store, or a hardware store, why not a ship ?
      Of course it’s hard to enforce it once the ship is underway, or after it docks. But at least have it as a policy.

  6. Again SSA’s motto needs to be updated to” We are not happy, till you are unhappy, and have COVID-19!”

  7. Look. The SSA is encouraging social distancing while on the ferries. When you do this, you don’t require a face mask! Good, protective fact masks are in short supply. If they weren’t, I am sure the SSA would be passing out masks to passengers boarding their ferries. I am sure the short supply of masks is why the ferries don’t require them. As the logical alternative they are enforcing social distancing. So what are so many afraid of?

    • The virus may remain in the air and on surfaces for a while. Even with social distancing, masks are needed to help contain icky stuff so that it doesn’t stick around.

    • There are hundreds of videos of people making masks with just a sock and a pair of scissors. There is NO reason why anyone cant come up with an adequate face covering.

  8. “If you have to have a mask on to go into a privately owned grocery store, or a hardware store, why not a ship ? “

    Precisely. Should they check whilst we are in line?

    Don (ot), if you see this, are you familiar with the lobster-clawed hands that have been affixed to many of the figures on the “School Zone/ Pedestrian Crossing” signage in the West Chop area and a few other spots Island-wide?

    Clever. I love them.


  9. Thanks for quoting me in the article. I care deeply about this issue and continue to want to support Jim Malkin and the rebuilding of the Steamships relationship and credibility with the Island. As I said, I am skeptical that the SSA can not update its terms of passage to require a face covering. As for enforcement, the focus should be on walk on passengers and should focus, at least for now, on boarding and exiting. Those are the times when it is most likely that an appropriate social distance can _not_ be maintained and that should be the priority.

  10. The focus is on wearing a face covering when you are not able to maintain an appropriate distance. Boarding and disembarking are two clear examples of when it is _not_ possible to reliably maintain a social distance. Requiring that people wear a face covering during those times, and any others when they can not maintain appropriate distance, is the requirement of each of the host communities. I am personally confident that the SSA is now looking into the need to be in compliance with local board of health and town health and safety requirements and the overwhelming safety concerns of SS passengers.

  11. Masks or a bandana, something to cover your face when you are not able to social distance should be mandatory on the SSA. I have to go off island next week and I am scared…and trust me, if I see people without a mask and they aren’t giving me my space, I will say something. I mean, how stupid do you have to be these days to not wear a mask when you are around others?? I have had to sit home for weeks, no work, and nothing social….I don’t want ANYONE messing this up. I don’t care where you come from or if you’ve lived here on the island for generations, we need to protect each other and not have an “us vs. off island” mentality. The SSA has to make covering your face mandatory, or you don’t ride, period, it doesn’t matter who you are, islander or off islander.

  12. Dunno, legally, if the SSA can deny passage to a mask-less passenger. Dunno what the SSA would do with a passenger who took the mask off during the passage. Quick story: Right after 911 a very young, very earnest new worker asked me for ID as I attempted to board. As it happened I had no ID on me; I was working for the Times (!) at that time, had just popped over to WH for a quick dental check, and back again. When I said I had no ID the lad was nonplussed. Then I asked, “What would you do with it? All it would prove is that I can drive a car in Massachusetts.” Laid off at that point, because it wasn’t this young fellow’s fault. The SSA has no power that I’m aware of to forbid passage to passengers who’ve paid the fare and are walking on and off. They need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and look for power from the local boards of health I think before they can exercise garbing for health.

  13. “Masks or a bandana, something to cover your face when you are not able to social distance should be mandatory on the SSA.”

    It now is. Good.

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