By Larry Persily

Alaska state ferry service is getting closer to normal, even though passenger loads are far from normal.

Even the Matanuska, the oldest operating vessel in the fleet at age 57, has come back to service. Engine problems forced the ferry out of service in January, stranding travelers throughout Southeast and, due to the unavailability of any other working boat in the fleet, left Skagway and Haines without any ferry service for seven weeks until the Tazlina was brought out of winter layup in March.

The Matanuska left Bellingham, Washington, on July 3 for its first run of the year to Southeast. The ship, which can carry 450 passengers, left Bellingham with about 100 travelers, Meadow Bailey, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Transportation, said July 6.

The light passenger load in the middle of summer is due to COVID-19 shutting down much of this year’s tourist travel, including closing the U.S. – Canada border to highway tourists.

In addition, the state is limiting passenger loads aboard all the ships to allow for more distancing between travelers, in hopes of stemming the spread of any infections. The ferry system encourages advance reservations so that travelers can ensure space is available.

The Kennicott also has rejoined the fleet and left Bellingham on June 27 — also with about 100 passengers, Bailey said. The ship can accommodate almost 500 travelers. Passengers boarding in Bellingham must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in the past 72 hours.

With the Matanuska back, and the LeConte running between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, the Alaska Marine Highway System is now running four or five sailings a week to Skagway through the end of September. The winter schedule, which starts Oct. 1, has not been released.

“The Lynn Canal runs departing from Juneau have been nearly sold out of passenger space for the past couple of weeks,” Bailey said. “The same goes for departing out of Skagway and Haines. Passenger space has been 99% sold out, if not 100%.”

Though the LeConte can accommodate 225 passengers, bookings are being limited to 59 travelers “to enable social distancing on board,” she said.

A passenger who boarded the Kennicott in Bellingham for its first run to Alaska later tested positive for COVID-19 in Cordova on July 4. The traveler had tested negative before boarding the ship. The person’s only close contact on the ferry was a traveling companion who later tested negative for the virus, as did 52 ferry employees, state officials reported.

It’s unknown when and where the passenger became infected, or when the passenger became contagious, state officials said.

The shortage of working boats this past winter was due to budget cuts instigated by the governor last year and a litany of mechanical and costly repair issues with the older vessels, plus the need to retrofit one of the newest ferries, the Hubbard, to add side doors to accommodate all ports of call.

Then, due to the steep drop in passenger loads this summer, the state kept some of the ferries tied up longer before coming into service. The Columbia, which finished its winter overhaul in April, has been kept out of service entirely.