Backgrounder: COVID-19 safety requirements for commercial passenger vessels and ferries

Background

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 13, 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada advised Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel outside Canada. As of March 25, 2020, all persons entering Canada—whether by air, sea or land— are required to isolate for 14 days if they have symptoms of COVID-19, or to quarantine (self-isolate) themselves for 14 days if they are asymptomatic in order to limit the introduction and spread of COVID-19.

Transport Canada is implementing several measures to ensure the safety and security of passengers and crew onboard vessels in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Effective March 13, 2020, the Government of Canada announced that it would defer the start of the cruise ship season in Canada from April 2 to July 1, 2020, at the earliest. This deferral applies to cruise ships capable of carrying more than 500 passengers and crew members. Given the limited public health capacity in Canada’s northern communities, that announcement also signalled the Government of Canada’s intent to defer the cruise ship season for vessels in the Canadian Arctic for the entire season in 2020.

COVID-19 safety measures for commercial passenger vessels and ferry operators

Commercial passenger vessels and ferries represent a higher risk for viral transmission of infectious respiratory diseases like COVID-19. Close proximity and frequent interactions among passengers and crew could pose a significant safety risk to travellers, crew, and the Canadian population. As a result, Transport Canada is introducing additional safety measures to help mitigate these risks.

The Minister of Transport issued an Interim Order on April 5, 2020, to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 on-board commercial passenger vessels carrying more than 12 passengers.

As of April 6, 2020, the following new measures are being implemented:

  • All commercial passenger vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers are prohibited from operating for non-essential purposes, such as tourism or recreational activities (e.g. day tours, whale watching, or sightseeing). These measures remain in place until June 30 at the earliest.
  • Given the vulnerabilities of Canada’s North, the measures would prevent any Canadian non-essential, commercial passenger vessels, such as cruise ships with a capacity of more than 12 passengers, from mooring, navigating, or transiting in Canadian Arctic waters (including Nunatsiavut, Nunavik and the Labrador Coast). Should any foreign passenger vessel seek to enter Arctic waters, they would need to give the Minister of Transport 60 days’ notice and be subject to conditions to ensure the safety of the voyage and protection of marine personnel and of local communities. These measures will remain in place until October 31, 2020.

These measures will not apply to:

  • Passenger vessels that may also be carrying essential cargo, or that are the only practical means for Canadians to access their homes, places of employment, or essential services. These vessels may continue to operate.
  • Cargo vessels, barges, work boats, fishing vessels and other commercial vessels may continue to operate to support resupply operations and the movement of goods through Canada’s supply chain.
  • Canadian commercial passenger vessels, without passengers, moving for repairs or repositioning.
  • Pleasure craft (e.g. non-commercial in nature) may continue to operate. Transport Canada may consider additional measures, based on any emerging advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Transport Canada has engaged with Indigenous organizations and communities that may be impacted by these temporary measures. Officials have also reached out to the Canadian Passenger Vessel Associations, Passenger and Commercial Vessel Association, and Canadian Ferry Association to inform them and receive their feedback.

Penalties

Enforcement actions for failing to abide by these new measures could include administrative monetary penalties of up to $5,000 per day for an individual and $25,000 per day for a vessel or corporation, as well as criminal sanctions, which include up to $1 million in fines and/or up to 18 months' imprisonment.

Enhanced screening for ferries and essential commercial passenger vessels

Operators must:

  • Immediately reduce by 50% the maximum number of passengers that may be carried on board (conduct half-load voyages) to support the two metres physical distancing rule; or
  • Implement alternative practices to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 (consistent with Public Health Agency of Canada guidelines) among passengers on board their vessels, such as keeping people in their vehicles, when feasible and enhanced cleaning measures including increasing the frequency of routine cleaning and disinfecting of high touch surfaces in both conveyances and terminals, and thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting areas contaminated or suspected to be contaminated.

Also, in order to reduce the spread of the virus, operators of ferries and essential commercial passenger vessels are encouraged to implement enhanced measures to protect staff and passengers. Examples include:

  • Operators would notify passengers before boarding that they may be subject to a Public Health Agency of Canada approved health check to prevent the spread of COVID-19; and
  • Operators would conduct health checks for passengers before boarding on voyages that have an expected duration of 30 minutes or longer, and advise every passenger that they are not to provide answers that they know to be false or misleading.

Definition of commercial passenger operations

A commercial passenger vessel is any vessel that carries at least one person who is paying for a trip on that vessel. Examples include sightseeing, water taxis, ferries, and harbour cruises.

A commercial passenger vessel is considered to be essential when:

  • It is the most practical means for people to access their homes, places of employment, or essential services (as determined by the provincial, territorial and/or municipal government);
  • It is transporting cargo for community or industry resupply;
  • The vessel is engaged in response operations, such as search and rescue, environmental response, or other emergency response; or
  • The vessel has been directed by a government agency or law enforcement agency to operate.

Ferries would be considered part of essential passenger vessels and must implement increased hygiene practices and are encouraged to adopt pre-boarding health screening as outlined in Transport Canada issued guidelines.

Additional hygiene and safety practices

Additional enhanced hygiene and other onboard practices to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 include:

  • Ensuring facilities exist to allow all passengers and crew to wash their hands often with soap under warm running water for at least 20 seconds;
  • Ensuring that hand sanitizer is available to all passengers and crew; and
  • Enforcing practices to reduce transmission risks, such as eliminating entertainment events on board and anything that would impact the two-metre physical distancing rule between passengers.

Ferry operators, personnel, and passengers are encouraged to adopt proactive hygiene habits such as frequent handwashing, coughing into their elbow or using tissue, and engaging in practices to reduce COVID-19 transmission risks.

Scope

These measures apply to all of Canada’s coastal and inland waters such as lakes, rivers and inlets, including the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and Canada’s Arctic waters.

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