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Lengthy San Juan Islands ferry delays frustrate riders and residents

The Washington State Ferry system says fallout from coronavirus is to blame for long ferry lines.

ANACORTES, Wash. — Mitch Herrera makes his living hauling construction supplies to and from the San Juan Islands, but delays at the ferry docks are making his days longer and job tougher.

"Three hours is the standard wait now," he says. "You just have to count on it."

Herrera says the state ferry delays make it more difficult to get his supplies delivered on time, creating a ripple effect.

"If you can't completely supply your customers, they're going to start getting it from somewhere else."

Summertime ferry delays are nothing new to the San Juan Islands, but the coronavirus pandemic has made this season much worse than most.

At one point this summer, some 200 vehicles with reservations were left stranded at the Friday Harbor terminal.

Several factors are at work.

Because ridership is down due to COVID-19, the ferries are running on a winter schedule.

That means fewer boats and fewer trips.

Now that summer is here, ridership is increasing, but not enough to justify a full summer schedule.

Now factor in that the state ferry workforce has many in a vulnerable age group, so many employees aren't coming back to work for fear of contracting coronavirus.

Some have used the situation to retire.

State hiring freezes are also in effect, leaving positions vacant.

Ferry Advisory Committee member Rick Hughes says COVID-19 is exposing how sick the ferry service is.

"If we're gonna keep going through this health crisis, and with the following economic crisis, we need to have infrastructure that works. It does not work right now. You cannot have every single boat late every single day and have a community function."

Ferry officials acknowledge the problem and say a task force is actively working to fix it.

"They're looking at adjustments to things with the boats or crews to squeeze a little bit more out of the schedule," says Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling. "There are delays right now. We're in the middle of a pandemic. These aren't normal times, and unfortunately, folks shouldn't expect normal transportation services whether it's ferries, airplanes or anything else."

Health officials in the San Juans continue to ask tourists to stay off the ferries and stay off the islands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Many are not heeding that call, putting a heavy burden on an already strained ferry system.

That strain is being felt across Puget Sound. The Seattle to Bainbridge run is down to one boat. Waits in Mukilteo and Edmonds have clocked in at up to four hours.

At this point, ferry officials say they have no idea when service will be back to pre-coronavirus levels. 

RELATED: San Juan Islands officials ask visitors to stay away to slow spread of COVID-19