Passengers without masks inside a ferry cabin on the way to Peaks Island last week. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Peaks Island residents say their complaints about ferry passengers riding unmasked and in violation of federal rules are being ignored by Casco Bay Lines at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising dramatically.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires people to wear masks on all forms of public transit, regardless of their vaccination status, including in cabins on ferries and inside Portland’s Commercial Street ferry terminal.

Unmasked ticket buyers in the Casco Bay Lines terminal, where a sign reminds people that masks are still required. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

CBL General Manager Hank Berg said via a spokesperson Aug. 2 that the ferry service has continued to remind passengers during trips to wear their masks in mandated areas.

But some island residents don’t feel CBL is doing enough. In an interview last week, resident Jean Hoffman said she believes there has been “insufficient effort to ensure compliance with masking requirements.”

There is nothing new about federal COVID-19 regulations, Hoffman added, which compounds islanders’ frustrations.

“We’ve been under various regulations as the government and the health authorities learn more about COVID for well over a year now, so it’s very late in the game,” she said. “And that’s why people on Peaks Island are getting more scared and losing patience with Casco Bay Lines saying they’re working on it.”

‘Like a Petri dish’

Berg said that while his company understands many people no longer leave home with a mask, the ferry service takes its responsibility to comply with federal law “very seriously.”

He said masks are required for all passengers inside the CBL terminal facilities off Commercial Street, while people are boarding and disembarking boats, and while inside passenger cabins onboard the vessels.

Many people either ignore or are unaware of the indoor mask requirement in the Casco Bay Lines terminal. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

“Our staff are checking for compliance when tickets are purchased and upon boarding to ensure every passenger has a mask, as well as reminding passengers during the trip,” he said. “Our team hands out upwards of 1,000 disposable masks a day.”

Berg also said masks are not required of passengers on a boat’s outdoor deck, and most passengers have been happy to comply with the rules once they understand the policy. He added the company encourages any passenger who feels another person is not complying with policies to notify a Casco Bay Lines employee.

While riding a morning ferry to Peaks Island on July 29, however, two reporters saw several people riding the boat indoors and congregating in the ferry terminal without masks. No employees were seen walking around to check mask compliance or asking people to put their masks on.

Portland Charter Commission member and Peaks Island resident Shay Stewart-Bouley also tweeted about the issue on July 29: “120 cases of COVID in Maine today and the boat cabin is filled with unmasked folks, in violation of the federal mandate on public transit.”

In an interview on Aug. 3, Stewart-Bouley said she has tried to limit leaving her house to once or twice per week during the pandemic and sent the tweet out of frustration.

She said she understands Casco Bay Lines deckhands are doing the best they can and it has been a long 18 months for them. But for island residents like her, riding the ferry is not a novel experience like it is for tourists. It’s more like a “subway in the water” she said, and she wishes passengers would follow the rules more closely.

“They’re not thinking about the fact that you’re actually coming into somebody’s neighborhood,” Stewart-Bouley said. “People live here, and more importantly that ferry is our lifeline to getting off this island.”

And a longtime Peaks Island summer resident who asked not to be identified by name said her recent experience was similar. She described the ferry cabin on a recent trip to Peaks as “like a (Petri) dish.”

Properly masked passengers wait to disembark the Casco Bay Lines ferry at Peaks Island on July 29. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

When she asked a deckhand whether he told passengers they needed to wear masks inside, she said the employee told her he could not “force them.”

“When I suggested he might be a little more emphatic when he told people to wear masks, he responded, ‘how would you like to do my job every day?’” she said. 

Another islander, who asked not to be identified by name, last week said when she recently asked a deckhand why CBL employees did not seem to be enforcing masking rules aboard the ferry, he replied they had “bigger fish to fry.”

The same island resident said on a different day she spoke to a passenger who was not wearing a mask inside the ferry who told her he was vaccinated, “did not need one” and he “didn’t have one, anyway.”

“With the Delta variant on the rise and crowded boats full of people from all over, I am dismayed that (Casco Bay Lines) is so lax about masks,” she said.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average daily number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide has more than tripled in the last month. The New York Times reported July 30 that according to an internal federal CDC document the Delta variant is more contagious than the viruses that cause the common cold, the seasonal flu, and smallpox, as well as several other diseases, and is as contagious as chickenpox.

The data also suggests vaccinated people can spread the Delta variant of COVID-19, although to a far lesser degree than those who are unvaccinated.

Because Casco Bay Lines is subsidized by federal grants, Peaks resident Hoffman noted, compliance with federal requirements is critically important. She also said the issue of people boarding the ferry without masks seems to have grown worse.

She said the issue is especially important for island residents who have to ride the ferries as part of their daily routines alongside tourists from all over the country, including those from areas where vaccination rates are much lower than in Maine.

“(Tourism) is partly why COVID is spreading,” Hoffman said. “So it is very worrisome to those of us dependent on the ferry.”

Nick Mavodones, who is a Portland city councilor and operations manager for Casco Bay Lines, said via emails obtained by the Phoenix that he would remind staff to “redouble their efforts” to ensure passengers wear face coverings in accordance with regulations.