Marine Atlantic is ending its pandemic practice of giving priority boarding to trucks carrying food, pharmaceuticals and certain other supplies to and from Newfoundland, a move that has one retail lobby group unhappy and saying it will impact the quality of fresh food available to people on the island.
The Crown corporation implemented priority boarding at the end of March, a measure meant to ease supply chain woes as a wave of pandemic restrictions swept across Canada and Marine Atlantic dialled back capacity on its vessels.
Food items, from non-perishable goods to fresh meats, fish, produce and dairy products, along with medical supplies and drugs, were given the first crack at crossings over other types of commercial traffic.
At the start of the program, Marine Atlantic said the protocol would "remain in place throughout our response to the COVID-19 pandemic." On Monday, Marine Atlantic confirmed priority bookings will cease Oct. 5 and return to first-come, first-served basis, "as part of our efforts to move closer to normal operations," it said in statement.
"Obviously, we're disappointed to see this end," said Jim Cormier, the Atlantic director for the Retail Council of Canada, a non-profit advocacy group, which he said has lobbied on behalf of grocery stores for years for priority boarding.
In the months since priority boarding was introduced, Cormier said there have been positive benefits, for stores and shoppers alike.
"You're seeing better on-shelf availability at retail, retail's been able to manage their labour hours better, because of course they have a better idea of when the food is arriving," he told CBC News.
"This has impacted not only the retailers, by saving them a lot of money. By having better product on the shelves, it's also had a huge impact on Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, where they're getting better quality produce."
Cormier would not cite specific company statistics, but said some grocers operating on the island had seen savings in the "tens of thousands of dollars" simply from not having customers return spoiled food for store credit or refund.
Such benefits to priority boarding made themselves readily apparent during the few months of the policy's existence, said Cormier, and "it's for that reason that we'd like to remain in effect on an indefinite basis," he said.
In a region with few active COVID-19 cases — as of Monday, N.L. had two, while Nova Scotia had one — Marine Atlantic has cited the desire to resume a semblance of normal operations, and told CBC moving back to having trucks load first-come, first-serve is "is not anticipated to negatively impact the movement of goods."
Still, as case numbers climb elsewhere in Canada, Cormier said such a move may be premature.
"Yes, the supply chain has corrected itself somewhat, but there are still real challenges in the supply chain, just due to the fact that we're now onto a second wave of COVID-19 in many parts of the world," he said.
Along with a second wave comes something else altogether more predictable: ferry disruptions due to winter weather. Cormier said even using priority boarding temporarily could make a huge difference to the province's store shelves.
"Wouldn't it be great, if following a potential two-day delay, that you could ensure there's priority for those fruits and vegetables to get over to Newfoundland and Labrador following a weather delay in North Sydney," he said.
Cormier said Marine Atlantic has always lent a willing ear to the council's ideas, even if the ferry service hasn't acted on it, and hopes to continue to press forward the idea.
There is another potential food delivery woe in the mix for this upcoming winter. Freight service Oceanex, a private company that ships the lion's share of goods to the Avalon Peninsula, reduced its shipping capacities in April citing financial pressures from the pandemic.
It was refused a federal subsidy to maintain services, and Oceanex continues to operate at a reduced capacity.
That service reduction shows an increased need to have food prioritized on Marine Atlantic, said Cormier.
Marine Atlantic's premium booking service also resumes on Oct. 5, with bookings for that starting Friday. Premium bookings are available in limited numbers for commercial traffic to ensure a spot on select crossings.