The M/V Tazlina arrives in Juneau on Saturday, May 16, 2020. A group of passengers traveling from Hoonah were denied their return journey May 29, forcing them to make alternate travel plans. Hoonah’s mayor says the incident was upsetting for many in the community, who rely on being able to come to Juneau for groceries and medical appointments. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

The M/V Tazlina arrives in Juneau on Saturday, May 16, 2020. A group of passengers traveling from Hoonah were denied their return journey May 29, forcing them to make alternate travel plans. Hoonah’s mayor says the incident was upsetting for many in the community, who rely on being able to come to Juneau for groceries and medical appointments. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

New AMHS rule denied some Hoonah residents their trip home

Hoonah residents trying to return from Juneau were told capacity was limited due to COVID

A group of Hoonah residents traveling to Juneau on the Alaska Marine Highway System were denied passage for their return journey Saturday, after being told the ship could only carry 80 passengers due to social distancing concerns.

“People with children, seniors, adults and people with their groceries trying to get home were all dumped at the ferry terminal,” said Pat Wickens, one of the travelers who had to find their way back to Hoonah.

Passengers who were forced to remain in Juneau had their tickets refunded, Wickens said, but the event has raised the ire of not just Wickens and his fellow travelers, but the mayor of Hoonah as well.

“There’s a lot of people upset in town,” said Hoonah Mayor Gerry Byers. “It was (high school) graduation that afternoon. You had people planning on being here.”

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In a Tuesday email, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities spokesperson Sam Dapcevich said DOT had made the decision to reduce passenger capacity to one-third of normal to allow for social distancing.

“AMHS is responding to the changing dynamics of a global health pandemic as quickly and responsibly as possible with decisions intended to protect the safety of its customers and staff,” Dapcevich said in an email. “AMHS recommends that passengers call ahead or make their reservations on the AMHS website.”

The decision was implemented May 29, Dapcevich said, and developed by working with Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and the Department of Health and Social Services. The policy will continue until DHSS advises it’s no longer needed, Dapcevich said, and more information will be provided in a forthcoming press release. DOT did not respond to any of Wickens’ comments.

State Rep. Jonathan Kriess-Tomkins, D-Sitka, whose district includes Hoonah, said DOT told him there was a decision to reduce passenger density, but that decision was not communicated publicly.

“It sounds like it was a mistake and a problem,” Kriess-Tomkins said Monday in a phone interview.

The travelers found out they wouldn’t be getting on the ferry at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, when the ferry was set to leave, Wickens said. Most of the people who were not allowed on the ferry were walk-on passengers, according to Wickens, and those forced to remain in Juneau had to scramble to find private transport home.

Some passengers charted flights with Ward Air, Wickens said, while he and six others were able to charter a private boat to take them home. But Wickens said he and the others paid $100 a piece for that trip when a walk-on ferry ticket would cost $37.

Traveling to Juneau for grocery shopping and medical appointments is critical for the people of Hoonah, Wickens said, and because of reduced ferry scheduling it’s critical Hoonah residents be able to rely on the more affordable ferries.

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“”If you’re trying to do a doctor’s appointment and shopping, (private transport) can wipe you out,” Wickens said. “Something went terribly wrong here and a lot of people were damaged.”

Wickens was critical of the leadership of AMHS, and Mayor Byers said he mostly agreed with Wickens’ criticism.

“To spring this on someone at 7 o’clock in the morning, doesn’t seem like the way to run any kind of responsible business,” Byers said. “No consideration for the people. If they had told them (beforehand) they wouldn’t have gotten on the ferry.”

Wickens said he spoke with Captain John Falvey, general manager of AMHS and said Falvey apologized profusely, but Wickens remained deeply upset. DOT did not reply to the Empire’s request for verification of the conversation.

“Nothing will get done. Until it’s an embarrassment they’ll let it slide under the carpet,” Wickens said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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