My. Oh my. Really? You don’t say. Lloyd? Again? Still. Do tell. No, wait, please don’t…
Last Thursday, for the first time since the provincial government declared us all in a state of suspended animation in March, our politicians came back out to play with reporters — at a politically safe distance, of course.
After a cabinet meeting in some secure and rarified ether somewhere, the government offered up a teleconference call — a scrum without the sweat — so reporters could ask ministers questions. And ministers could deflect those questions with their usual bland non-answers. Just like in the real world.
And so it went. But then, there was this: “This government believes in the ferry and we will continue to support it.”
Yes, of course, Thursday’s teleconference call marked the welcome return of Happy Hines and the latest installment of his Ferry Fairy Tales.
You may recall that, when we last saw our finger-in-the-reality-dyke transportation minister sometime last October, Lloyd Hines was still bravely predicting the Yarmouth-Bar Harbor ferry would begin its 2019 summer season any day now, even though everyone knew that ship had long since (not) sailed.
Last year, Nova Scotia taxpayers forked out $17.8 million to subsidize the non-operator’s non-ferry service. Not to forget foregoing millions in never-seen Yankee tourist dollars that never made landfall in Nova Scotia because the ferry — did we mention — did not sail.
But that was then. What’s past is prologue. Life goes on.
To be fair, our transportation minister appears to have heard vaguely about this pandemic thing that’s gumming up the world’s works. “We will be relying on the public health officials in Nova Scotia, our federal folks since this is an international ferry, and of course our partners in Maine to let us know when it is safe to resume the service,” Hines explained to reporters last week. But, of course, he was quick to add: “When we get the all clear, Bay Ferries will be ready to go.”
There is so much to unpack here.
Start with this.
The Canada-US border has been closed to all non-essential traffic since March 22, and almost no one in Canada believes it will — or should — open anytime soon.
Two days before Hines’ happy talk, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked repeatedly during his daily briefing whether he thought the border should remain closed.
We’re going to be very, very careful about reopening any international travel, including in the United States, before we feel that it is time… Preventing transmission from outside of Canada into Canada, once we have controlled the spread within Canada, will be an essential part of ensuring that we don’t fall back into a second wave that could be as serious as this wave we’re going through, or even more so.
On this, Trudeau seems to have the support of key provincial leaders. Ontario, which shares borders with four US states — Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and New York — opposes any easing of restrictions. “I do not want those borders open,” declared Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who added that, even when restrictions are finally lifted, screenings at border crossings will need to increase “tenfold.”
Even Hines’ boss — on the same teleconference call in which our transportation minister expressed his fond hopes for the ferry summer season — poured an ocean of cold water on its prospects. As the CBC reported:
Premier Stephen McNeil said he supports the federal government’s position on restrictions at the U.S. border for non-commercial traffic and travel. The premier said there still needs to be a better understanding of what’s happening in America with respect to COVID-19.
Given what is happening to sound science and sane public health policy amid pandemic pandemonium in Donald Trump’s Dis-united States, we shouldn’t expect a ferry “all clear” anytime soon.
Mark MacDonald, the chairman and CEO of Bay Ferries (which doesn’t operate a Yarmouth-Bar Harbor ferry service but gets subsidized as if it did), recently told Saltwire’s Tina Comeau, “We make it our business to be optimistic.”
But even he doesn’t seem very.
Pre-COVID, Bay Ferries had announced its 2020 summer season would launch on June 26. Now it’s not only bumped that opening date forward to July 15 but also says it isn’t planning a full daily sailing schedule any time soon. Or at all. “Further schedule changes are possible as events unfold,” the company posted on its website on Tuesday, the same day Trudeau downplayed the idea of an anytime-soon border re-opening.
The company appears so uncertain there will be a season, in fact, that MacDonald acknowledged to Comeau “no material marketing investments are being made.” While he added quickly that “marketing effort and expenditures can be rapidly ramped up when there is more clarity as to operational plans,” it is telling that a ferry service that will need all the marketing it can muster isn’t spending anything to generate even future business.
But even if the borders re-opened tomorrow and health official gave the all clear, would anyone come? Every survey I’ve seen suggests people will be wary of recreational international travel for months, probably years after it’s finally allowed. Air Canada, in fact, is predicting it won’t return to pre-COVID passenger levels much before 2024.
No need to remind you that passenger levels on the Yarmouth-Bar Harbor run were no great shakes, even pre-COVID. The good/bad news is that we may not have to worry much about enforcing social distancing rules on the ferry.
As for other possible post-COVID rules? Fourteen-day self-isolation on arrival, for instance? That could be good news for local hotels… if anyone arrives.
And what of the state of Maine? Will it really be keen to have super-spreaders from COVID hotspots like New York tromping over its territory just to get on a ferry to go to Nova Scotia.
Which brings us again — still — to this. Will the renovations to the Bar Harbor terminal — the ones you and I are paying for and which have still not been completed after more than a year of pushing dirt around — actually ever be finished?
“The work in Bar Harbor has progressed well this spring,” Mark MacDonald says without really saying anything, “and has generally followed the project plan established some months ago. We anticipate that the terminal will be ready to accept customers when circumstances otherwise allow us to commence service.”
Which means…? Based on experience, not much.
None of any of it offers much comfort to tourist operators in southwestern Nova Scotia who’ve watched government money disappear into Bay Ferries pockets while the company — and the government — fail to deliver tourists to Nova Scotia.
In the short term, the best answer is probably to declare this summer ferry season — like the last — lost and re-distribute the massive subsidies destined for Bay Ferries to the tourist operators who really need them.
After that? We need to re-think the future of rural economic development in Nova Scotia. Pre-, mid-, and post-COVID, it’s past time.