People driving onto a BC Ferries vessel will no longer be allowed to shelter in their own pandemic-proof bubble by remaining in their cars on lower, enclosed decks.
That's because on Sept. 30, Transport Canada is rescinding the temporary measure it granted to BC Ferries in the spring that allowed passengers to stay in their vehicles in those areas.
According to Transport Canada, adequate measures are now in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and it isn't safe for people to be in their vehicles on decks that aren't open.
"BC Ferries must comply with Transport Canada regulations and the company supports the regulation and its intent," reads an announcement from the federal department. "Enclosed car decks are spaces that represent inherent risk to the travelling public."
The decision doesn't sit well with the B.C. premier, who believes with the pandemic still a major concern, ferry travellers shouldn't be forced to mingle on the upper decks if they don't have to.
"This is an unwelcome intrusion by the federal government," said John Horgan. "We believe our marine highway is an essential service to a huge number of British Columbians."
BC Ferries president Mark Collins says any passenger who fails to follow the directions of crew members will be denied service.
"We expect our customers to follow the law and we continue to have zero tolerance policy for abuse of any kind toward our employees," he said.
Hands are tied
Darren Johnston, BC Ferries executive director of fleet operations, admits the timing is not ideal but said BC Ferries had little choice.
Transport Canada was "firm" on their decision and any discussion between the federal agency and BC Ferries regarding this matter is now over, according to Johnston.
He said ferry staff will try to direct as many cars onto unaffected upper car decks as possible. The renewed policy won't change the number of vehicles allowed onto ferries.
Johnston also said ferry staff will try to organize the departure and return from car decks so passengers do not crowd stairs and space around elevators.
"It's going to take a cooperative effort by everybody involved, our crew and passengers alike," Johnston said. "We just need to make sure that everyone maintains a cool head."
Areas on some boats that were previously closed, like the Pacific Buffet, will reopen for seating only to give more space for passengers to physically distance.
COVID-19 protocols of additional cleaning and the requirement to physically distance and wear a face mask while on board remain in place.
The routes affected are:
- Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay
- Tsawwassen-Duke Point
- Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay
- Powell River-Comox
- Tsawwassen-Southern Gulf Islands
On the Horseshoe Bay-Langdale route, Transport Canada is allowing passengers to remain on the main vehicle deck following modifications to the vessels and procedures. This does not apply to any other routes.
If cases continue to rise, BC Ferries may consider restricting the number of vehicles allowed onto vessels.
"Nothing's off the table," Johnston said.
"But for right now, we're confident that although the timing may not be perfect, we can implement this regulation safely and effectively."