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.