Impacts of pandemic on Alaska Marine Highway System felt near and far

Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 10:22 PM AKDT
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Coronavirus concerns have had effects on sectors across the state, and the pandemic did not leave the Alaska Marine Highway System out, triggering changes throughout the ferry system and even leaving some communities to make do with what they have.

While AMHS usually has a whole fleet of ships going up and down the coast this time of year, each of them packed with people and goods, the agency has been forced to make changes, many of them due to the pandemic. In some cases, certain communities were left off the normal schedule.

"Bringing ferry service back online is an important part of reopening part of Alaska's economy," said Sam Dapcevich, the public information officer for the Alaska Marine Highway System. "We were (at one point) only running two vessels. Normally, we would be running more."

Multiple dayboats and mainline routes generally cover communities from all the way over in Dutch Harbor, up the Aleutian Islands chain, through Southcentral and down, all the way to Bellingham, Washington. Instead, schedules have been changed, with new plans for the future already being implemented: Masks are now "highly recommended," per the Department of Transportation; capacity on state ferries has been reduce to one third of the maximum, in order to promote social distancing; passengers must complete health checks before boarding; and even more cleaning will take place, every day, for the health and safety of those on board.

"We cut a couple days here and there because of low demand," Dapcevich said. "The travel restrictions caused our demand to go down dramatically."

detail travel numbers to and from various stops along the AMHS ferry route, demonstrating use by both locals and visitors, as the agency seeks to revamp the overall system and return to being profitable. A

notes that, despite locals' dependence on the system, ridership is trending down, with 2018 passenger capacity at 42.6 percent and vehicle capacity at 51.6 percent.

Several other reports have come out over the past few years, but

of AMHS: The report showed 1,700 Alaska jobs with AMHS in 2014, with the system's economic activity reaching $273 million that same year, as it carried 319,000 passengers, 108,000 vehicles and nearly 4,000 container vans.

Numbers from several of the most popular communities in 2019, for example, show 4,549 passengers embarking in Bellingham between May and September, with 3,433 disembarking; 4,898 embarking in Homer, with 4,382 disembarking; 11,119 embarking in Ketchikan, with 8,247 disembarking; and 24,808 embarking in Juneau, and 24,428 disembarking.

Right now, however, communities along several of the ferries' routes are quieter than usual, with the coronavirus taking its toll on passenger numbers. Numbers for 2020 will not be released until well after the season, but will likely be drastically lower between schedule changes, travel restrictions, and ships being laid up for various reasons.

All of the work, however, on all fronts, means more ferries and more access to come.

"It helps get people and goods moving again," Dapcevich said, "and that's important to Alaska's economy: Get money flowing, get people where they need to go for work and fishing and whatever else they need to get done."

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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