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Less than 12 hours after the opening of the Atlantic bubble for interprovincial travel, passenger traffic wasted no time lining up at North Sydney’s Marine Atlantic terminal on Friday.
More than 30 passenger vehicles lined up in the terminal yard in anticipation of the company’s first official crossing at 11:45 a.m. since Atlantic travel restrictions were lifted at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning.
Under overcast skies and cooler temperatures near the shoreline, the MV Blue Puttees made its voyage for Port aux Basques, N.L., leaving North Sydney approximately 10 minutes late.
Meanwhile, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the MV Highlanders was leaving that province on its way to Nova Scotia, expected to arrive at approximately 5:30 p.m.
On June 24, the Atlantic premiers announced the creation of a regional travel bubble, known as the Atlantic bubble, allowing those from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador to travel without having to self-isolate upon return to their province.
Cape Breton Regional Municipality District 2 Coun. Earlene MacMullin believes the creation of the Atlantic bubble comes at a perfect time for local residents and businesses.
“People have put in a long few months in isolation and they’ve been doing such a great job, the little bit of freedom is very much appreciated,” said MacMullin.
“Our cases are low in the Atlantic provinces, we all have family or summer homes in other provinces, so to have that little staycation ability is fantastic.”
Although not everyone agrees with the Atlantic bubble, MacMullin said the majority of residents she’s spoken with welcome the lifted restrictions and are not concerned with possible COVID-19 spread.
“They’re not concerned over the Atlantic bubble portion, but it seems like the major concerns, at least I’m hearing, is of those coming from outside of the Atlantic provinces,” she said.
Mike MacDonald is among Northside residents who agree with the lifting of travel restrictions.
“In Cape Breton, we haven’t had a COVID-19 case in a number of weeks, we’re a relatively small community, so I’m not overly concerned,” said the North Sydney native.
“I feel we’re at low risk as long as the travellers are from the Atlantic provinces, I’m confident in the decisions made.”
Marine Atlantic has been in operation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The ferry is considered essential and is constitutionally-mandated to perform the transportation service.
In May, Marine Atlantic told the Cape Breton Post the company had seen a significant decrease in traffic numbers to begin its fiscal year, which included nearly a 70 per cent decrease in passenger traffic compared to the 2019 season.
During the pandemic, with provincial travel restrictions in place, Marine Atlantic saw passenger vehicle numbers drop by 77.2 per cent from April 1 to May 10, compared to the same time in 2019.
Prior to the Atlantic bubble announcement, the company had limited its service to a maximum of 100 people per crossing in an attempt to help flatten the Coronavirus curve, while keeping customers and employees safe.
The company has since changed its capacity numbers to include 100 passengers per crossing, plus commercial traffic. Incrementally, Marine Atlantic will increase its passenger numbers in phases, going to 150 passengers plus commercial, and eventually reaching 200 passengers plus commercial traffic.
“We’re doing it in increments because obviously we want to see if there are any issues that we need to address before we bring those additional passenger numbers on board," said Marine Atlantic spokesperson Darrell Mercer.
Since June 24, the company has received approximately 4,000 new reservations, which forced them to evaluate the service based on demand for travel between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s certainly additional traffic coming into our service right now, but it’s not going to be a regular season,” said Mercer, noting the company suspended the North Sydney to Argentia route for the season in early May.
“We’re eventually going to be going to 200 passengers plus commercial traffic, but our regular capacity during the summer season is upwards of 600 to 700 passengers per crossing.”
Marine Atlantic has implemented guidelines for its passengers moving forward.
“We’re going to be requiring all passengers to wear face masks when they come into the terminal property and on the vessel,” said Mercer.
Because of the increase in traffic numbers and passenger number restrictions, Mercer said some customers may not be able to cross the Atlantic on the specific date they want.
“Ultimately, not everyone is going to be able to cross at their choice, but we feel it’s a good balance meeting the traffic demand while maintaining our principals,” said Mercer. “We have passenger restrictions to protect the health and safety of customers and employees.”
Mercer confirmed all four crossings Friday reached the restricted capacity. The final two crossings of the day were scheduled for 11:45 p.m.
Despite rumours of a possible Atlantic bubble protests near the Marine Atlantic terminal in Port aux Basques on Friday, none were reported. No protests were held in North Sydney.