Alaska News

Alaska clarifies new pandemic restrictions for ferries that include tests for some passengers

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The state has launched new protocols to guard against the spread of COVID-19 on Alaska’s ferries — some stricter than those governing flying or driving into the state.

The Alaska Marine Highway System on Sunday announced sweeping new restrictions requiring negative tests for all passengers except those on the day ferries LeConte and Lituya. But they almost immediately started working to tweak those protocols.

By Wednesday, Alaska Marine Highway System officials released a clarification that exempted people making short trips within the state from testing requirements. They also added a provision for passengers on longer trips allowing them to avoid testing by proving they quarantined for two weeks beforehand.

Shorter duration and day-boat passenger travel does not require COVID-19 testing or a sworn statement of quarantine, officials now say.

The only ferries sailing now are the day ferries. The Kennicott this week was scheduled to depart from Ketchikan for Bellingham on Thursday and make the first run of the season from Washington state on Saturday.

The new restrictions come too late to prevent a COVID-19 cluster on the state ferry Tustumena during its first sailing in early June. A crew member developed mild symptoms after the ferry left Homer, and she ended up testing positive several days later and infecting several other co-workers. One additional crew member tested positive last week, bringing the total infected to eight.

Under the clarified restrictions released Wednesday, ferry passengers boarding at Bellingham in Washington state must have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before boarding and provide the mandatory state travel declaration form to crew.

Passengers already in Alaska traveling to Bellingham, crossing the Gulf of Alaska, or going to or from the Aleutian Chain including Kodiak must either provide a sworn statement affirming they’ve quarantined for 14 days prior to trip or test negative for COVID-19 within five days of departure.

The time it takes to get test results back can vary widely. Air travelers from Outside following testing protocols — though they may choose to quarantine for 14 days instead of testing — were reporting long delays with results from tests taken upon arrival at Alaska airports, a situation state officials say they are remedying.

[After reports of long delays, Alaska officials say they’ve made fixes to ensure faster COVID-19 airport test results]

All in-state ferry passengers must complete the passenger screening form before boarding and must be able to respond “no” to all questions, officials say.

Other new ferry restrictions ban passengers and crew from going ashore during port calls. Passengers will be allowed off the vessel only upon arrival at their destination port. Everyone aboard will also practice social distancing, officials say. The ferries are already sailing at reduced capacity to help keep passengers separated.

All passengers and crew on the ferries are required to wear face coverings if they’re over the age of 2, under the new restrictions. The rule applies except when in a stateroom — on the mainline ferries — in a designated smoking area or while eating.

State officials say accommodations will be made for passengers who can’t cover their faces due to medical conditions.

One person who comes down with COVID-19 on a ferry puts everyone at risk for infection and potentially serious consequences, state transportation officials say.

“This may include a required quarantine or isolation period for all aboard, with no access to public transportation for a minimum of 14 days,” Alaska Marine Highway System officials said in a statement Wednesday. “It is up to all passengers and crew to act responsibly so ferry service can continue in Alaska.”

But officials also note that the day ferries Lituya and Tazlina ran all spring without a problem.

A spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities on Monday said the state expected to clarify the protocols later that day. But they weren’t officially updated until Wednesday afternoon.

“There’s a lot of changes and they’re happening ... every day it seems like they’re adding something new,” Robb Arnold, vice chair of the Inlandboatmen’s Union that represents unlicensed crew on the ferries, said Tuesday. “There’s just so much so quick.”

Arnold wondered why the state wasn’t lifting the reduced-capacity sailings in light of the new changes.

“They haven’t been running as frequently,” he said. “People are backed up on shore. That’s our concern.”

Fewer sailings also makes for fewer jobs, said Arnold, a chief purser who said he hasn’t been able to work since January though he’s hoping to get on a ferry next month. A little less than two-thirds of the IBU’s 400 members are working now, he estimated.

Crew will also need to be tested prior to their two-week shifts, Arnold said. That’s proving difficult for ferry employees who live in places like Hoonah or Prince of Wales Island, where testing is limited.

“That’s a challenge,” he said. “We’re trying to work through it.”

There were no testing or movement restrictions for crew prior to the Tustumena’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Prior to the new restrictions, the state couldn’t control the movement of crew members during their off hours “per contract guidance,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey said in an email last week.

The state is finalizing agreements with the three maritime vessel unions “regarding crew not going ashore, unless there is official AMHS business that requires someone to disembark,” Bailey said in an email Monday. “The goal is to limit any transmission of COVID-19.”

The state has requested that employees stay on vessels in lieu of a formal agreement, and the unions have conceptually agreed, she said Wednesday.

The Tustumena sailed into Homer from Ketchikan on May 31, Bailey said in an email last week. The vessel departed Ketchikan with crew on board and arrived in Homer on May 31. Some crew got off and went home.

The remaining crew was allowed on and off the vessel, she said. They were told to follow COVID-19 protocols, including one that “strongly” recommended face covering on duty and in public areas. Other protocols included screening questions about exposure to people suspected of having the virus; social distancing; and frequent sanitization of the ferry.

The crew was not instructed to remain on board after docking in Homer because the contract allowed crew to “move freely after work hours,” Bailey said.

Before the ferry left, a crew member came into contact with someone in Homer who later tested positive for the virus while the ferry trip was underway.

The Tustumena was taken out of service in response; a number of infected crew members quarantined on board. The state originally said the Tustumena would resume sailings from Homer to Kodiak and Dutch Harbor in late June.

The ferry is now scheduled to return to service on July 2.

Forms to affirm quarantine will be available on the Marine Highway System website and available at check in. Details about which tests are accepted are located in a FAQ on the state’s website.

Ferry officials also say at-home test kits including the Pixel system from LabCorp and Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit “may soon be available” to travelers who are having a hard time getting tested.

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