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While AMHS Reduces Passenger Capacity, Officials Say Aleutians Unlikely To Be Impacted

Nancy Heise

The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) has limited the number of passengers allowed on its ferries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each vessel may only carry up to one third of its passenger capacity. 

The M/V Tustumena is scheduled to travel four times this summer along the Aleutian Chain route, with its first scheduled departure from Unalaska on Saturday, June 6.

Ports Director Peggy McLaughlin said she thinks the reduced capacity and cleaning measures the State of Alaska has put in place for AMHS vessels is an appropriate response to try to flatten the curve on the spread of the coronavirus.

"The reduced capacity may or may not affect a number of people trying to get into Unalaska/Dutch Harbor this summer, because we're the end of the line," said McLaughlin. "While people will oftentimes be on a tourist trek on the Alaska Marine Highway checking out the Aleutians, I think that the tourist portion of marine travel is really at an all-time low, and I do think we will see a reduction in tourism. I don't know that that's necessarily from the reduction in the capacity of the vessels, so much as it is just that people are reducing their recreational tourist travel this year anyway."

Earlier this year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy made massive funding cuts to the state ferry system, and the AMHS released an updated summer schedule in April with just four ferry trips scheduled for the entire year — far fewer than the eight to 10scheduled in recent years.

Carlin Enlow, executive director of the Unalaska Visitors Bureau, said regardless of the passenger limits, she would expect to see much less travel on the ferry due to the pandemic. 

"I'm glad we still have four of the five sailings we fought for," said Enlow. "At this point, we have expectations that all cruise ships will likely cancel this year and travel via AMHS is likely to be drastically impacted as well. If anything, I actually wouldn't be surprised if we saw more Alaskans traveling out here to explore on the ferry rather than people from out-of-state."

Unlike in Southeast Alaska where some limited seating capacity vessels have filled up and non-ticketed passengers are being turned away, McLaughlin said the role of the ferry in the Aleutian Islands is primarily for tourism or residents and teachers to relocate.

"The role that the Alaska Marine Highway plays in Southeast is far different than the role that it plays in the Aleutians," said McLaughlin. "So the caps will definitely affect the ability to move goods and people around Southeast, but I think it'll have less of an impact for the Aleutians."

The state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities announced the Alaska Marine Highway System is also implementing other enhanced COVID-19 mitigation protocols at all AMHS facilities and aboard all vessels. Passengers on AMHS ferries will have to complete a health screening form before boarding, and adhere to face covering and social distancing guidelines.

In an email Monday, Department of Transportation regional spokesman Sam Dapcevitch said the new policies implemented May 29 were based on guidelines from the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). They will remain in place until further notice.

AMHS recommends that passengers call ahead or make their reservations on the AMHS website. 

Meanwhile, at its meeting on May 26, the Unalaska City Council made an exception to the city's local quarantine mandate. AMHS "day travelers" are exempt from quarantine during their stopover in Unalaska. But they must still wear a face covering while visiting local businesses and adhere to six-foot social distancing guidelines.


Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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