Masks must now be worn on ferries and other commercial boats that carry passengers. The Cape May-Lewes Ferry alreayd has a mandate in place. Facebook photo.

Masks on Commercial Boats: USCG to Enforce new CDC Directive

Not everyone has heard of it yet, but the U.S. Coast Guard will be enforcing a nationwide order issued this month requiring masks be worn on all “public maritime vessels, including ferries” to lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The Feb. 1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order requires “all persons traveling on all commercial vessels to wear a mask.” It also requires vessel operators to “use best efforts” to ensure everyone on board wears a mask when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration they’re on the boat.

The order gives examples of “best efforts” that include boarding only those who wear masks, informing people of the federal mandate, monitoring people on board for mask-wearing and disembarking anyone who refuses, and giving advanced notice and adding signage for awareness.

The Coast Guard is charged with enforcing the order, and in a Marine Safety Information Bulletin, USCG says “owners, operators, and crew of vessels that fail to implement the mask wear order may be subject to civil or criminal penalties from the CDC.”

The Coast Guard writes, “Vessels that have not implemented the mask
requirement may be issued a Captain of the Port (COTP) order directing the vessel’s movement and operations; repeated failure to impose the mask mandate could result in civil penalties and/or criminal action.”

Some passenger vessels in the Chesapeake region are already following mask mandates, like the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Delaware River and Bay Authority Spokesman James E. Salmon says, “Since the beginning of this pandemic, we’ve required all of our passengers aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to wear masks and will continue to do so.”

The directive doesn’t only apply to ferries, though. Charters and tour boats are also included, and watermen may also be affected. Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD 1st District), who represents Maryland’s Eastern Shore, says the order needs clarification.

“This mandate is overly broad and leading to unforeseen frustration… Our watermen are completely outdoors, often numbering no more than three per vessel, and have been working together without interruption since the beginning of this pandemic – they are at extremely low-risk by the nature of their work.”

Queen Anne’s County Watermen’s Association President Troy Wilkins calls the directive “ridiculous,” saying he hasn’t seen one waterman wearing a mask on board since it was issued.

“I heard one person say that they get on a boat with a few guys and they have to wear a mask, and then driving in the car back home you don’t have to,” Wilkins tells Bay Bulletin.

But he acknowledges if Coast Guard enforcement does take place on the Bay, that may change things. “If the Coast Guard enforces it, it could impact our business.”

Some commercial vessel operators Bay Bulletin reached out to weren’t aware of the directive, others told us the mask mandate simply isn’t necessary. Captain J.C. Hudgins, Virginia Watermen’s Association president and operator of an eco-tours business on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, says, “With all of the vaccinations and social distancing going on, it looks like that is having a pretty good impact so far. My opinion is I don’t think it is necessary. I ran my eco-tours all summer with just social distancing on board and didn’t have any problems.”

Anyone who wants to report a vessel not following the order, or anyone with questions about the order can email the Coast Guard at wearamask@uscg.mil.

-Meg Walburn Viviano & Cheryl Costello