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'The ferry system is our lifeline': San Juan Island residents scramble as several weekend ferry routes are canceled

The cancellations come after weeks of rumors of Washington State Ferry employees staging a “sick-out” to protest the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

ANACORTES, Wash. — Several ferry routes are canceled this weekend for the Anacortes-San Juan's, Mukilteo-Bremerton and Edmonds-Kingston terminals.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) confirmed the cancellations had to do with a worker shortage from dozens of employees calling out sick.

This comes after weeks of rumors of WSF employees staging a “sick-out” to protest the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

A fortunate group of passengers boarded the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor Saturday afternoon. They booked their spots in advance before many routes were canceled.

“The ferry system is our lifeline to pretty much everything,” said Orcas Island resident Justin Paulsen.

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Paulsen is the Orcas Island Representative for the Ferry Advisory Committee. His phone has been ringing off the hook since word got out about the canceled ferry routes

“Having the ferry shut down is a gigantic economic impact to our community," explained Paulsen. "When it trickles down into things like grocery stores being able to put milk on the shelves, that's when you really start to see folks get into panic mode and start feeling the pinch in a big way."

The San Juan Islands don’t have a drive-around option if ferries aren’t operating. Paulsen warned the impact is more than just economic.

“I have a woman who texted me at six this morning, worried about making her last chemotherapy appointment in Seattle. She has no means by which to get there if the ferry system isn't operating according to some kind of schedule,” he said.

WSF did not confirm if the large number of workers calling out sick is related to the governor’s vaccine mandate.

In a statement, WSF acknowledged dozens of staff are out due to active COVID cases, quarantines or after receiving their COVID-19 vaccines. A representative also said the ferry system is challenged by a "global shortage of mariners."

“WSF appreciates the great majority of staff who are working this weekend to keep as many vessels and sailings as possible in operation. However, we are faced with a number of canceled sailings due to a lack of crew," the statement reads. 

A spokesperson said the dispatch team is working "around the clock" to assign staff to routes for ferry-served communities.

"Many crew members have gone above and beyond to keep the system moving and help cover when staff aren't available."

WSF encouraged riders to stay up to date on the status of their route by checking Twitter, signing up for ferry email alerts, and checking terminal conditions.

Paulsen said he sees both sides of the issue.

“There's no way to confirm whether or not a person calling in sick, is sick or not," said Paulsen. "We do know that ferries has done an incredible job with their COVID protocols over the last year and a half. I think we all sympathize with them, but we also maintain a high degree of concern for keeping commerce and health going in our county.