The state ferry Kennicott returned to service Thursday, departing Ketchikan at 3 p.m. for a southbound voyage to Bellingham, Washington.
The voyage marks the first Alaska Marine Highway System mainline service between Alaska and the ferry system’s southern terminus since Jan. 23 when the ferry Matanuska sailed northbound from Bellingham.
A mechanical issue resulted in the Matanuska being taken out of service on Jan. 26 in Juneau, which ended mainline service in Southeast Alaska until the Kennicott resumed sailing on Thursday. The Matanuska is scheduled to return to service next Wednesday with a 4 p.m. departure from Ketchikan to Bellingham.
AMHS has implemented significant health protocols intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 aboard the ferries.
For example, ferry passengers sailing from Alaska to Bellingham must have been administered a COVID-19 test within five days of the departure date, according to AMHS information. The passengers must present a negative test result upon checking in at the terminal or boarding for travel.
All of the passengers who boarded the Kennicott on Thursday in Ketchikan had “negative tests in-hand,” AMHS spokesperson Sam Dapcevich wrote in an email to the Ketchikan Daily News.
Alaska Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter elaborated on the COVID-19 travel measures involving AMHS later on Thursday during a Facebook Live question-and-answer session with Ketchikan and other state officials.
Carpenter emphasized the efforts being taken to prevent the coronavirus on the vessels.
“(We’re) working with Public Health, we were trying to reduce the potential for spread on these longer-duration vessels, routes, as much as possible,” Carpenter said.
He cited the recent example of the state ferry Tustumena, which had to be taken out of service during its first voyage of the season earlier this month after crew members tested positive for COVID-19. The Tustumena is scheduled to resume service next Wednesday.
“We’re taking this very seriously — we're not trying to inconvenience anyone — but as you guys all know, we had a breakout on the Tustumena, and, it laid the ship for going on over two weeks now,” Carpenter said. “If we have another breakout, it could be even scarier because if you get the Kennicott with a breakout, she's going to be holding 125 people plus 50 crew. It's going to be a logistical nightmare, not to mention just a scary situation for all those people.
“And it's a life issue, and it's a jobs issue,” he continued. “And if we can't run the system safely, ... we can't run the system.”
The requirement for passengers who already are in Alaska to be tested within five days of departure applies to long-duration voyages from an Alaska port to Bellingham, across the Gulf of Alaska, or to and from the Aleutian Chain with a stop in the port of Kodiak, according to AMHS information.
There is another option. A passenger in Alaska can sign a sworn statement that affirms that the traveler has followed quarantine standards for at least 14 days before the date of travel.
Asked what would happen if a passenger was unable to get a negative test result before the time of ferry departure, Carpenter said the AMHS would deny service to that passenger.
“We understand it's frustrating for everyone, and believe me, we're taking this very seriously and we're trying to do it as best we can — but we will have to deny passage,” Carpenter said.
Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink also participated in the Facebook Live event. She said DOT has had a “real challenge” with the state ferries.
The state has been working closely with companies on testing options that can have the low turn-around time necessary for ferry passengers to be able to travel out of Bellingham, said Zink.
She noted that the Pixel home test for COVID-19 has been seeing 24- to 48-hour turnaround times, for example.
The state also is talking with CVS and a variety of urgent care centers in Washington and Oregon to facilitate testing that can accommodate state travel rules.
“So we are quickly trying to move this direction as quickly as we can,” Zink said.
She added that Hawaii has announced that it will have a similar pre-arrival testing process in place, and Maine has a testing process similar to Alaska’s. New York, Connecticut and New Jersey require quarantines before arrivals in those states.
“We see travel as a risk, but we're seeing many states move in a similar direction and trying to work collectively to make it as easy as possible for people to get testing 72 hours prior so that the ferries can run and they can always be safe,” Zink said.
The Kennicott is expected to arrive back in the Ketchikan at 5 a.m. Monday, according to the AMHS schedule.