Spike in ferry ridership spurs concerns

Despite the governor’s stay-at-home order, a sharp increase in people visited Whidbey last weekend, worrying island leaders and residents alike.

The Mukilteo-Clinton route was the busiest ferry route this weekend, accounting for 30 percent of total ferry traffic, according to Ian Sterling, communications person for Washington State Ferries.

“We haven’t seen ridership like this since this all began, back in March,” Sterling said.

For Friday through Sunday, ridership numbers for the route totaled 33,000, meaning around 11,000 riders sailed on the route per day. To compare, the same weekend last year had 44,000 riders.

During the past two months, the entire ferry system has not had many days when ridership numbers have been above 10,000. Ridership “cratered,” Sterling said, and the numbers matched the amount of riders accessing the ferry system in the 1950s.

But now within the past few weeks, use of the ferry has steadily been growing again.

“It is a little telling that we are beginning to see things tick back up, especially on the weekends,” Sterling said, adding that some of the ferry traffic coming across may not be essential.

“It’s frustrating for us to see that people aren’t listening as much as they could,” he said.

Sterling attributes the high numbers on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry route to the fact that the Bainbridge Island and Bremerton routes to Seattle both have boats out of service for sanitation and are operating at 50 percent capacity. Otherwise, these routes may have been busier.

Ferry wait times on the Mukilteo side of the Clinton-Mukilteo route ran from one to two hours for all three days.

Clusters of people, young and old and seldom wearing face masks, gathered in lines around the Ivar’s Fish Bar on the Mukilteo side. Car doors thrown open and windows rolled down, people meandered restlessly between cars while waiting on the ferry dock or while aboard the ferry, as the Washington State Ferries message playing overhead asked people to stay in their vehicles.

At the north end of Whidbey, the situation wasn’t much better. Apart from the warm weather and the recent reopening of Deception Pass State Park being a draw, food was also an attraction, as mostly unmasked individuals stood just as closely in line while waiting at the Shrimp Shack on Fidalgo Island.

Neither Ivar’s Fish Bar nor the Shrimp Shack could be reached for comment by press time. The Shrimp Shack’s Facebook page encourages customers to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison expressed concern over the amount of tourism coming from both ends of Whidbey. The city recently declared an emergency proclamation, requiring everyone inside the downtown sector to wear a mask, excluding private residences or vehicles.

“Masks were worn pretty uniformly by residents,” Callison said in an email. “Visitors — who by the way are violating the governor’s stay-at-home order by being in Langley — not so much.”

He added that the proclamation carries no enforcement language, so it has been up to the discretion of police officers to advise and request that violators comply and offer them a mask if they do not have one.

Whidbey residents have shared their frustrations with seeing so many people flocking to the island in one weekend, worrying so much foot traffic will undo the progress social distancing has done to help slow the number of cases in Island County.

They have shared these concerns over social media community pages and with the Whidbey News-Times directly.

As of May 11, Island County has had 181 cases of COVID-19, with nine of these resulting in death.

Sterling said there are no plans to change how ferry traffic is handled on the Mukilteo-Clinton route because it has been providing transportation for essential workers and commuters. It also serves as a way to get goods across to the island.

If people choose to use the ferries as transportation during these times, he recommends they come in a vehicle and stay inside it to minimize contact, in addition to wearing a mask.

Ferry workers have been wearing masks and gloves if they wish to do so. Sterling said he expects a mandatory face mask policy for employees will be in place soon, although what may happen for passengers is not yet clear.

He added that Washington State Ferries is taking other precautions, with Plexiglass shields being installed and cards being able to be swiped from a pole. An employee passed away last month due to COVID-19.

“It’s something that obviously we’re keeping a close eye on,” Sterling said.