If you're looking to skip the drive to the Cape this summer, you're going to have fewer alternatives.
Ferry services are limiting their operations for the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the companies wait to be allowed to reopen in the coming weeks, they're rethinking their schedules and taking other safety measures.
Boston Harbor Cruises' tag line "Our boats, Your playground" will take on a different meaning this year. There'll be less playing and more physical distancing aboard their sightseeing cruises and ferries to the Cape and Harbor Islands.
"The first thing we'll do is we'll limit the number of people that we allow on every single vessel to allow for 6-foot social distancing," Boston Harbor Cruises general manager Alison Nolan says.
Boston Harbor Cruises' boats can carry up to 550 people. Nolan says they'll cut down the number of passengers by at least half.
The company will also have fewer departures — including on their popular fast ferry to Provincetown. Instead of the usual three roundtrips between Boston and Cape Cod each day, there'll be just one.
“So we'll start small," Nolan says. "And then if public interest is there — and we hope people are interested in coming out and enjoying the harbor — we can bring back the vessels online as we need for capacity."
There will be other changes too. Passengers will be spaced 6 feet apart to board and disembark. Seats will be closed off to ensure proper distancing onboard. There'll be more cleaning and disinfecting. And plexiglas shields will be installed around kitchen areas.
Boston Harbor Cruises is also carefully choosing the types of boats it'll use this summer.
"We're picking vessels that have, you know, open air decks that allow enough opportunity for people to get outside in the fresh air, which is what I think everyone's really looking forward to," Nolan says.
But even with all these preparations, it's hard to predict what the summer season will bring. Nolan expects to have a very challenging year financially. Commercial ferry services won't be allowed to resume until phase three of the governor's reopening plan. That won't begin until June 29, at the earliest.
Other ferries are limiting service too. Bay State Cruise Company will reduce the capacity on all of its boats this summer. Though, it will maintain a full schedule of roundtrips for its Provincetown ferry.
It's important to note that MBTA ferry service, which is operated by Boston Harbor Cruises, will start in phase two of the state's reopening plan — as early as June 8.
And the Steamship Authority is already running a reduced schedule for trips to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
“We don't want to have so much service out there that we’re paying for crews and boats that aren't needed. But, we don't want to have so little service that people can't get where they're going," says Steamship Authority spokesman Sean Driscoll.
The authority has had a drastic decline in ridership and was on the brink of shuttering. It also had one of its biggest year-over-year drops in ridership during Memorial Day weekend — a 65.8% decrease to Martha's Vineyard and a 72.6% decrease to Nantucket, compared to 2019.
"These are boats that carry a thousand passengers, and they're maybe carrying 200 on a decent trip," Driscoll says.
That's good for social distancing, but not good for the Steamship Authority's finances.
Driscoll says the agency, which makes its money during the summer, has already lost millions during the pandemic.
"Even if we got back at this point to 100%, going into the rest of summer and the rest of the year, we might break even for the year. Big might," Driscoll says.
The Steamship Authority has received $12.3 million in federal relief money. But Driscoll says any new outbreak of COVID-19 could mean even more of a financial hit.
"We're hoping people are going to use their good judgment," Driscoll says. "I mean, quite frankly, we're not staffed well enough to be able to have people walking around with two yardsticks taped to each other and making sure people are 6 feet apart. You know, there is an element of personal responsibility here."
The hope is that already limited ferry services won't have to become even more restricted as the state reopens and cruises into an uncertain summer travel season.
This segment aired on May 29, 2020.