Last week it was reported that BC Ferries passengers will no longer be permitted to remain in their vehicles on enclosed vehicle decks as of September 30th. The announcement has caused concern for many Nanaimo-Ladysmith residents. Almost immediately my office began receiving phone calls and emails from people who are worried for their safety or the safety of loved ones.
At the beginning of the pandemic last spring, Transport Canada temporarily eased restrictions on Canadian ferry operators. This allowed passengers to remain in their cars on enclosed vehicle decks. Transport Canada recently informed all ferry operators that as of September 30th the temporary easing of restrictions will end.
I understand the concerns being expressed by residents who have emailed and called my office. With more people required to be on the passenger decks, physical distancing on the large ferries will be more challenging.
The main routes connecting Nanaimo-Ladysmith to the mainland all have some vehicle decks that are only partially enclosed. Passengers may stay in their vehicles on these decks. If you are immunocompromised or a senior, my best advice is that you show up early for your sailing and let the ticket agent know that you would like to be parked on a vehicle deck where you are permitted to remain in your car. If you are not high risk, and plan to leave your vehicle to sit on the passenger deck anyway, consider volunteering to park on an enclosed vehicle deck.
On Friday, September 11th, I emailed the Transport Minister about the concerns that have been raised by Nanamio-Ladysmith residents. Here is the text of my email:
Dear Minister Garneau
As of Sept. 30th, BC Ferries passengers will no longer be permitted to remain in their vehicles on enclosed vehicle decks because Transport Canada has rescinded the temporary regulation flexibility granted to all ferry operators at the beginning of the pandemic. Since this information became public two days ago my office has received numerous calls and emails from concerned constituents.
The BC ferry system is part of our highway system and links Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast to the Lower Mainland of BC. Many people must travel this route to go to hospitals and see medical specialists in the greater Vancouver area. Many passengers have compromised immune systems and would be put at additional risk if they are forced to leave their vehicles and mingle with other passengers on the passenger decks. This is also true of seniors travelling back and forth between the island and the mainland.
Across British Columbia and Canada citizens are on the high alert regarding the likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 infections. There is anxiety around the return of students to schools, and new limitations placed on the operation of restaurants, bars and nightclubs in British Columbia. Considering all of these factors, making social isolation more difficult on BC Ferries at this time sends mixed messages to British Columbians and contributes to a sense, held by a growing number of people, that COVID-19 related directives lack consistency and that the “right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing”. This perception erodes public confidence and trust in Canadian medical authorities and increases stress in the populace. It also exacerbates the spread of misinformation on social media regarding the real danger of the COVID-19 outbreak and the government’s response to the pandemic.
Enforcement of the no passengers on enclosed vehicle decks regulation is problematic in any case. There is no way for BC Ferries staff to verify that a passenger driving an RV has not gone to sleep in the back of their vehicle, or that a truck driver has not crawled into their cab sleeper. However, ferry staff can easily see if people are sitting or sleeping in cars and bang on their window in an emergency.
Considering that the main BC Ferries routes to and from the Mainland and the Island have a stellar safety track record, I believe this situation warrants genuine risk analysis. What is the risk of a catastrophic marine accident resulting in loss of life, versus the likelihood of a senior or immunocompromised individual contracting COVID-19 on BC Ferries due to exposure to large numbers of people moving around on enclosed passenger decks. Until such analysis is concluded, I believe Transport Canada should continue to allow passengers to remain isolated in their vehicles during sailings in order to minimize passenger interactions and potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further.
Member of Parliament
On Monday, September 14th, I received a response from the minister, which you can read here.
It's important to point out that BC Ferries do not transport dangerous cargo on their passenger ferries. On this, the Minister of Transport was mistaken. His point that enclosed vehicle decks are designed to contain fire and smoke is an important one. BC Ferries routes between Vancouver Island and the Mainland have a stellar safety record, but accidents do happen. Ensuring that passengers can evacuate safely in the unlikely event of a collision, fire or flood is essential. This is especially true as we head into the stormier part of the year. However, the government has not provided any data regarding the risk analysis, and I am a firm believer in evidence-based decision making. It's also my understanding that Transport Canada did not contact BC Ferries prior to making it's determination to end the easing of restrictions. Apparently communications about this issue between the two entities begin after the Sept. 30th deadline was set. Reflecting on my own experiences since the beginning of the pandemic, under such extraordinary circumstances a more collaborative approach to decision making tends to yield better results for everyone involved.
Travelling anywhere these days can be very challenging and stressful. BC Ferries workers are essential workers who serve our communities day in and day out, rain or shine. Please remember to be friendly and patient with BC Ferries staff and with fellow passengers. And as always, please stay healthy and safe.