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Empty shelves in the Masset Co-op on April 26.Lori Fox/The Globe and Mail

A COVID-19 outbreak among staff on a northern BC Ferries route has resulted in widespread service cancellations, leaving residents and visitors to Haida Gwaii stranded and disrupting medical travel and supply chains.

Haida Gwaii is typically served three times a week by the Northern Adventure, a ferry connecting the predominantly First Nation community of 5,000 people at Skidegate, B.C., with the mainland via Prince Rupert. BC Ferries began cancelling sailings on Sunday, axing their 10 p.m. run from Prince Rupert because of staffing shortages. More sailings were cancelled Monday, and by Tuesday all service on the Northern Adventure route had been suspended. Service is expected to resume Friday.

The only other way on and off the island is by plane, which is cost prohibitive for most residents and would mean they would have no access to their vehicles.

Deborah Marshall, a spokesperson for BC Ferries, told The Globe and Mail that the staffing issue was the result of a COVID-19 outbreak among employees. The disruption has affected around 1,200 people on the cancelled ferries, Ms. Marshall said.

The cancellations are more than an inconvenience. The ferry is the main mode of transport for goods and other essential services, such as medical travel. John Short, the site administrator for Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Centre in Masset, said patients and staff rely on the ferry to get to medical appointments not available on the island or to get to work at the hospitals.

Although most Haida Gwaii residents are used to occasional ferry cancellations owing to bad weather, Mr. Short said sudden, lengthy service suspensions of this nature are “new to everyone.”

The hospitals on Haida Gwaii – the second one being in Queen Charlotte – have a good redundancy system in place, he said, and used a charter plane to ensure a “minimum of impact” for the people in their care. Nevertheless, it creates a lot of extra stress on both the system and on patients, he added.

“I’m concerned for families and individuals who may not have the resources to go book hotels and buy food and whatnot. … I haven’t been contacted directly about that, but we do know it’s impacted them.”

The disruption in service has created “utter chaos,” said local resident Jen Parr, who owns and operates Masset Car and Truck Rental.

“A lot of people coming off the planes, they’re locals,” she said. “They get off the plane and they take a car I have on reserve, and I end up giving away free upgrades [to tourists], but we’re a local company and locals come first, especially because they’re at my back door, stranded.”

Initially, BC Ferries didn’t state what the cause of the staffing shortage was, resulting in speculation and concerns around food supplies, which also arrive by ferry. Fresh produce, eggs, dairy and even frozen goods disappeared from shelves, and some people were “panic buying” Ms. Parr said.

BC Ferries sent over a cargo-only ferry – ferries without passengers require fewer staff – on April 27, which helped resupply grocery stores, but the lack of communication between BC Ferries and local residents and businesses has been a problem, said Sue Capern, general manager for the Co-op supermarket in Masset.

Ms. Capern said she had spent “hours” on its customer-service line and calling terminals, but people “just weren’t picking up.”

She has sympathy for the situation BC Ferries is in – there’s a labour shortage all over the province, and as an employer, she’s had a hard time keeping staffed during the pandemic, she said. But she questions why such an essential service doesn’t have enough redundancies to ensure it can continue to function in such situations, given that many people, like those on Haida Gwaii, count on it.

“They’re the key source providing food and sustenance to the island.”

BC Ferries has implemented chartered planes for stranded residents, and “will provide cargo and limited essential passenger-travel-only sailings, with medical customers receiving priority.”

Affected passengers are encouraged to save their expense receipts.

BC Ferries expects to have Northern route service resumed by Friday, with the next sailing from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii set for May 1. Reservations for these routes are at capacity for sailings from Prince Rupert to Skidegate until May 15, and from Skidegate to Prince Rupert until May 9.

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