Most truck drivers crossing between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland will have to bunk down next to strangers this summer, as Marine Atlantic has ended a pandemic policy of giving each trucker a private room.
With Newfoundland and Labrador's Come Home Year on the horizon, and travel restrictions lifting around the world, Marine Atlantic says bookings have gone through the roof. The company says it's no longer possible to accommodate the physical distancing measure that provided safety and solitude for truckers during the heights of the pandemic, so it's moving back to its old policy of pairing truckers in rooms.
"We've moved to a different stage of the pandemic and Public Health has once again said, 'Well, now there isn't the same concern that was there in the past,' so we returned to the double berthing," said Darrell Mercer, spokesperson for the ferry company, on Thursday.
That's not a popular decision among truckers, including Newfoundlander Larry Dodge, who drives for St. John's-based Akita Equipment and Auto Transport.
Dodge, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, said the policy was fine for pre-pandemic times but he's not comfortable taking chances with an underlying condition and COVID-19 still circulating.
"Yes, we used to do that, but times have changed," he said.
Marine Atlantic berths can sleep up to four people, but they are tight spaces. Dodge estimates the beds are about two feet apart.
The company said it will set aside 35 of the vessels' 96 cabins for truckers, with some allotted as private rooms available on a first-come, first-served basis for those willing to pay for an upgrade. Dodge said if he can't get an upgrade, his options would be to share a bunk, sleep in a chair or get off the ferry. He said he'd rather get off.
"You want to put me on the boat now tonight, tell me I can't have a room, I've got to sit in a chair [until] 7 o'clock in the morning, then I can get in my truck and drive for 13 hours? That's not very safe for the public."
Impossible to please everyone, company says
Dodge's boss, Chris Howlett, said he has about five drivers who are refusing to share rooms with strangers. He said he'll pay for upgrades whenever possible, but he'll have to eat the losses if they choose to skip a crossing.
"Financially, it's going to hurt me incredibly, of course, and it's going to hurt the general public getting goods delivered to the island," he said. "But it's hard to go backwards when we were just told for two years to have minimal contact."
Mercer said those who don't want to board can wait for the next boat, and they'll be first in line to upgrade to a solo room.
Marine Atlantic has 28,000 bookings for this summer — twice as many as it had this time in 2019, the last pre-pandemic season. Business is good, Mercer said, but it's also made for some tough decisions.
"Unfortunately, we don't have enough cabins to meet everybody's needs," Mercer said. "We are limited in the infrastructure we have right now and we're trying to make the best to meet everybody's needs."
Mercer said Marine Atlantic will reassess the policy later in the season to see if 35 rooms is adequate.