March 24, 2020
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Ferry companies in Cranberry Isles cut back service to limit coronavirus spread

Bill Trotter|BDN
Bill Trotter|BDN
The Beal and Bunker passenger ferry Sea Queen maneuvers out of Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island in this 2015 photo to carry people to the Cranberry Isles.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

Two private ferry companies have enacted limited passenger bans to keep out-of-state visitors from spreading coronavirus to three small islands off the coast of Hancock County.

Downeast Windjammer Cruise Lines LLC and Beal and Bunker Mail Boat and Ferry have also cut back on their scheduled daily runs as part of temporary efforts to safeguard Great Cranberry, Little Cranberry and Sutton islands, said Jim Fortune, an administrative assistant to the Town of Cranberry Isles, which includes the three islands.

“We want to limit the back-and-forth to prevent the virus from entering into our population here. We are in some sense quarantining the island,” Fortune said Monday. “We can’t do that 100 percent, but residents understand that it is part of the social distancing we want to do for the next few weeks at least. These aren’t large communities. You want to make sure you keep it away, off the island, and we will be in good shape.”

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Beal and Bunker has barred all non-residents from using its ferry serving the three islands, which usually runs between the three islands and Mount Desert Island three times a day. Starting Wednesday, March 25, the company will cut back to one run that will start when it leaves the MDI town of Northeast Harbor at 11 a.m., according to a notice from the company.

Downeast Windjammer, meanwhile, has cut back its daily runs to the three islands from MDI from two to one, at 5 p.m., and barred contractors doing work on the island from using its ferries, although contractors can still hire private boats to take them to the islands, Fortune said.

Downeast Windjammer is also limiting its passengers to seasonal and year-round residents of the three islands, plus residents’ friends and family members and those whom ferry personnel recognize as frequent passengers, said Capt. Steve Pagels, Downeast Windjammer’s owner-operator.

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Located east of Mount Desert Island, Great and Little Cranberry islands have a year-round population of about 125 residents, while Sutton has 26 residences usually used only during tourist season, which typically doesn’t start until May, Fortune said.

As the owner of a private company contracted by the Town of Cranberry Isles to provide ferry service, Pagels said he has an obligation to protect his employees from the virus. If needed, he said, he could end the ferry service to the three towns entirely in response to the pandemic.

“Right now I feel that MDI is a minefield for germs because of the people coming in from out-of-state,” Pagels said Monday.

The Town Council of Bar Harbor — MDI’s largest town and, aside from the presence of Jackson Laboratory, a municipality almost entirely dependent on tourism — also seems leery of outsiders at the moment. It took the highly unusual step on Friday of asking tourists to stay away for the time being due to coronavirus concerns.

The Cranberry Isles Board of Selectmen met on March 17 and voted 2-0 to declare a public emergency. The town also issued a public notice stating that “Year-round residents who are returning from trips off island for more than a day, as well as returning summer residents, are strongly encouraged to self-quarantine for two weeks and be fever-free for at least three days, per CDC recommendations.”

Contractors or others commuting daily to Cranberry Isles for work were also encouraged “to remain on their job sites while on the island for work and maintain proper social distance from residents at all times, including limiting interactions with island residents.”

The board will meet Tuesdays and Fridays starting March 24 at 10 a.m. to review town actions and the pandemic, the notice states.

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