Washington State Ferries Grapples With Mask Requirements for Passengers

Ridership aboard Washington State Ferries (WSF) last year fell to its lowest level since 1975, a drop caused by the coronavirus pandemic that kept workers and tourists at home, the agency said.

Nearly 14 million passengers sailed with WSF in 2020, down by 41% — about 10 million — from 2019.

"We're lucky compared to just about every other transit agency or mass transit system," said Ian Sterling, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, saying that ridership has rebounded at a faster rate than many other transportation agencies.

"We expect the numbers to continue to recover as we approach summer," Sterling said.

Ferries revenue plunged $68 million this past year, but the agency received $39 million in federal aid and expects to get $20 million in the latest stimulus package, he said.

Last spring, the agency reduced routes serving the central Puget Sound area in response to fewer travelers and fewer crew available due to the pandemic. Some routes remained on a winter sailing schedule for several months, and certain trip sailing times were suspended.

The Seattle-Bremerton route saw the largest drop, with ridership down 64% to just under 875,000 passengers. Ridership between Seattle and Bainbridge Island fell 59%, knocking the route off the top spot as the system's busiest for the first time since 1958. Walk-on ridership, which typically includes workers headed to jobs in downtown Seattle, fell about 74%.

These rankings exclude the route between Anacortes and Sidney, British Columbia, which has been suspended since March due to border restrictions.

The Mukilteo-Clinton and Edmonds-Kingston routes both carried about 3 million passengers each, replacing Seattle-Bainbridge as busier routes, despite large ridership decreases of their own. A new ferry terminal opened in Mukilteo last month.

Those routes also benefited from attracting drive-on passengers. Across the entire system, WSF carried more vehicles than walk-on passengers — about a 1.2 million difference.

Passengers who board a state ferry in a vehicle have been advised to remain inside their car or truck throughout the sailing due to the pandemic.

However, walk-on passengers can spread out and maintain social distancing guidelines. All riders must wear a face covering inside the ferry, a mandate the agency struggled to implement this summer.

State ferries may limit the number of walk-on passengers on a sailing to allow for social distancing.

More than 100 employees have tested positive for the virus or have quarantined because of exposure to someone who has COVID-19, Sterling said. At least one employee, Esther Bryant-Kyles, a 25-year veteran who most recently worked as a ticket seller at Colman Dock, died from COVID-19 complications.

The agency also saw a decrease in ridership in 2019, down 3.2% from the year before due to snow, construction and other ferry options, the agency said.

Ridership has begun to climb back up in recent months, WSF said. It is expected to further rebound when more sailings are restored as the infection rate declines.

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