Infected crew disrupts Steamship Authority

Over two dozen are tested as reservations temporarily freeze.

Three Steamship Authority employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Two were associated with the Woods Hole, and one was associated with the Governor and the Woods Hole. — Rich Saltzberg

Three Steamship Authority employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Through contact tracing, roughly 30 more employees have been temporarily sidelined, and were tested at Cape Cod Hospital Monday. The results of those tests are expected Thursday or Friday. Another 10 employees have been pulled off their schedules “out of an abundance of caution,” as SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll put it, but do not fit the prerequisites for testing. The absence of so much crew reduced service on some ferries, and triggered a four-day reservation freeze. The freeze included modifications to existing reservations. Emergency medical passage is still possible, however. The reason for a freeze, he noted, was to ensure people who had existing reservations were able to travel in light of reductions in crews and scheduled crossings. 

On Wednesday morning, Driscoll said reservations had changed to “generally frozen,” and added, “We’re opening them up as we’re able.” 

By Wednesday afternoon, he declared a complete thaw, but cautioned an “extremely busy weekend” was ahead, and space would be scarce.

True enough, with Labor Day looming, the timing of the ordeal has been especially bad, as the SSA is in the midst of one of the busiest stretches of the season. 

The first of the three infections was announced August 2,8 and pertained to an individual connected to the MV Woods Hole. 

“The employee last worked on the vessel, which is currently serving the Nantucket route, on the shift that began with the noon departure of the vessel from Hyannis on August 25, 2020, and ended with its 11:30 am arrival in Hyannis on August 26, 2020,” a release stated. “The employee subsequently learned of a possible exposure to COVID-19, was tested, and learned of the results on Friday, August 28, 2020.”

The second of the three infections was announced August 29, and pertained to an individual who worked on two different ferries.

“The employee last worked on the MV Governor on Saturday, August 29, 2020, and on the MV Woods Hole on the shift ending with the vessel’s 11:30 am arrival in Hyannis on Friday, August 28, 2020,” according to the SSA’s release. 

The third infection was announced on August 31, and pertained to an individual who worked on the Woods Hole. 

“The crew member last worked on the MV Woods Hole on the shift ending with the vessel’s 11:30 am arrival in Hyannis on Friday, August 28, 2020,” a release stated. “As reported earlier, another employee who worked the same shift has since tested COVID-19 positive as well; however, it is unknown how or when transmission of the virus occurred.”

For privacy reasons, Driscoll declined to release the names of the three employees, nor would he disclose their positions. Driscoll also declined to say if the three employees previously failed thermal scans performed daily on SSA personnel. 

The partial crew vacuum that followed the infections has hampered service on both the Nantucket and Vineyard routes. On Sunday, the Sankaty went on a reduced Nantucket schedule, and all its Vineyard runs were nixed. As surrogate for the Governor, which was taken out of operation, the Woods Hole also ran a reduced schedule.

In a release following the second infection, the SSA described reductions to ferry service as “made in the interest of the safety of the Authority’s crews and passengers,” but also cited “reduced manning capabilities.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Driscoll said, the Governor will be reactivated, and operate on a pared-down schedule of four to five round-trips to the Vineyard, including the 5:30 am freight run. That freight run won’t occur over the weekend, however. The Woods Hole will return to Nantucket service, and the Gay Head will supplant the Sankaty’s thrice-weekly roundtrip Vineyard runs.

SSA crews routinely disinfect the ferries in the fleet, but the infections prompted the ferry line to hire professional cleaners to execute an additional deep clean of the Governor and the Woods Hole on Sunday. On Sept. 9, certain trips and timetables will undergo changes. The fall schedule will be set in motion prematurely, according to Driscoll. 

One of the reasons service remains limited on some vessels, Driscoll said, is because crew rest periods couldn’t otherwise be adhered to. For the Governor and the Woods Hole, this means between six to nine people must eventually rotate out for rest. 

According to the Coast Guard’s regional office of marine inspection, the Governor requires a minimum of a six- to seven-person crew of a master, a mate, an able-bodied seaman, an ordinary seaman, a chief engineer, an oiler, and a pilot. The pilot can be one and the same with the master or the mate. The Woods Hole had a similar minimum compliment, but double the seamen. Driscoll confirmed the Coast Guard staffing levels. He said intervals vary as to when the crews need to rotate out for rest, but noted that rest was mandatory. 

In a message to The Times, SSA board chair Jim Malkin thanked “everyone for their patience and efforts as we work through yet another difficult situation due to COVID.”

The three infections are not the first time SSA employees have tested positive. Two SSA employees tested positive toward the beginning of August, and another employee tested positive in May.