PROVINCETOWN — The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is no closer to opening up nonessential businesses and relaxing social distancing rules than it was a week ago.
Last week, I wrote about how the bigger party fishing boats and whale watch boats would have to reduce their capacity if social distancing guidelines are still in place when boats for hire are allowed to do business again. For us on the Cee Jay, it would bring us down to 15 passengers per trip. We are certified for 40 passengers.
The six-passenger charter boat captains have an even bigger problem. With their smaller vessels, the six-foot separation parameter could be a deal breaker.
I asked a few Provincetown and Truro six-passenger charter boat captains about this and their answers were consistent: it would be nearly impossible to comply with such a restriction.
Capt. Russ Zawaduk of the Lisa Z said he was ready to roll with disinfectants and masks, but there was “no way” he could be compliant with the six-foot social distancing rule on his boat if reopening came with that requirement.
Capt. Rich Wood of Provincetown’s Beth Ann went further. “I’m OK with setting proper requirements in place,” he said, “but enforcement of that is nonexistent — just like regular enforcement of size limits. So why make a requirement when you can’t enforce it?”
That is an excellent point. Who exactly is going to be in charge of patrolling the waters to make sure all passengers are maintaining a six-foot distance from one another while fishing?
Capt. Elena Rice of Reel Deal Fishing Charters, which operates several boats out of Truro, echoed the general sentiment. “Keeping passengers consistently six feet apart, even on our largest boat [the 33-foot Invincible], is going to be challenging,” she said. “Depending on the sea conditions, sometimes passengers are safest and most protected all together on one side of the boat.”
Rice argued that fishing charter customers often arrive at the pier all in the same vehicle. “Therefore, this group has been within less than six feet in an enclosed vehicle and has made the decision that it is the same on the boat,” she said. “While our captains will do their best to keep anglers separate, they will not be six feet apart the whole time. Keeping the captain distanced from the customers is also a protocol we are implementing. The captain will need to distance him or herself as much as reasonably possible during the trip. In an emergency, the captain will decrease this distance as necessary.”
For those operating boats for hire, just being able to reopen is not the solution. They say they need to reopen without restrictions. Meanwhile, larger boats such as ferries, whale watching boats, and party fishing boats being forced to operate at one-third capacity may be similarly unsustainable. For the six-passenger charters, the only solution would be to take one or two people out at a time, at the six-passenger rate. That is going to be a tough sell for the average customer.
There have been protests at the State House this past week by boat owners and captains, and a few petitions are circulating on social media. But at the end of the day Gov. Charlie Baker is going to lean on the data in front of him, along with the input of medical and health professionals in deciding when we can operate and under what guidelines.
All we can do is hope for a timely, practical, and, most important, safe solution for us all, so we can get back to taking our customers out in a short season that is getting shorter by the day.