ELLSWORTH — The Maine State Ferry Service has published a “continuity of operation plan” outlining its response to the burgeoning threat of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Like employees at many other state agencies and businesses, the Ferry Service is requiring that certain employees work “remotely.” While the directive obviously doesn’t apply to vessel crews and most terminal personnel it does apply to upper management. According to the policy document released this morning, the ferry service manager, business manager and all terminal managers “have laptops (computers) to work at home.” Other senior managers, including the port engineer, assistant port engineer and the port captain, “should be issued” state-owned laptops that would allow them to work away from their offices.
As of Monday morning, the Ferry Service had not announced any changes to the schedule as a result of the coronavirus, but there are no guarantees. The Ferry Service is now operating on its winter schedule, which includes fewer trips compared with the summer schedule. Currently, the ferry from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island runs just five trips a day five days a week, four trips on Sundays. By contrast, between early May and mid-October, the daily runs increase to six with Sunday trips increased to five. That could change if the virus strikes ferry crew.
For the moment, the Ferry Service plans to cancel leave and use part-time relief crew as needed to fill in for crew members who are sick. If necessary, with several crew ill, the service would reduce the number of daily runs from its Rockland terminal to North Haven and Vinalhaven and possibly combine some trips to the two Penobscot Bay ports. Similar trip reductions could occur on the ferry Margaret Chase Smith, which serves the island of Islesboro from Lincolnville.
To encourage “social distancing,” the Ferry Service will continue to allow passengers who drive on board to remain in their cars, but may close off the upper deck of the Smith and use the exterior bridge station on the Capt. E. Frank Thomson, which sails between Rockland and Vinalhaven, and the soon-to-be-commissioned Capt. Richard G. Spear, which will also sail on the Rockland-Vinalhaven run.
As a last resort, the Ferry Service could petition the Coast Guard to allow emergency or “essential” trips to sail with reduced crews. The service could also utilize crew working on short-term contracts to meet manning requirements.