New COVID-19 rules in place for Alaska’s ferries, including testing, mask-wearing and social distancing

The M/V LeConte ferry docks in Haines in 2018. (Berett Wilber/KHNS)

Editor’s note: The Alaska Marine Highway System clarified its new protocols on June 24. Read the update here.

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced a set of new protocols over the weekend that it says will protect against the spread of coronavirus on its vessels.

Passengers on Alaska’s mainline ferries are now being required to get a COVID-19 test before traveling. Passengers on shorter haul voyages aboard the LeConte and Lituya will be asked to sign a screening form instead, attesting they’ve had no symptoms nor have traveled to an infected area without social distancing.

But the testing requirement, which mirrors rules for visitors arriving from outside Alaska, will be in force on the fleet’s mainliner ships (Kennicott, Matanuska and Tustumena) even for short trips. Passengers will have to show evidence of a negative test from within 72 hours before being allowed to travel.

Passengers and crew will also not be allowed on shore during port calls and will only disembark at their final destination. And with some exceptions, passengers two years old and older will be required to cover their faces on all vessels unless they are in a stateroom, a smoking area or eating.

Alaska’s ferry link with the Lower 48 is scheduled to resume June 25 with a return voyage from Ketchikan to Bellingham. Passengers are being notified of the new testing rule, though it can take several days for COVID-19 results to be processed.

“We understand that testing can be a challenge, but for the safety of crew and passengers it is really important that we do everything possible to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Meadow Bailey wrote in a statement. “If we have one positive person on board, vessels and crews have to be pulled out of service. In addition to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, we also need to have a dependable system.”

The marine highway began running ferries at reduced capacity at the end of May to allow social distancing on board. The policy wasn’t announced in advance and some passengers reported being turned away and denied tickets. Earlier this month seven crew members tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the Tustumena during a trip to the Aleutians. All sailings of that ship are canceled until July 2.

The announcement reverses an earlier policy that didn’t require masks of its passenger and crew on state ferries.