All aboard? Not quite. Toronto Island residents worried about limited restart of ferry service

Some Toronto Island residents are concerned about crowds, but also the demands on ferry services as boats will operate at half capacity to allow passengers to physically distance.

Service resumes Saturday with restrictions on hours, number of passengers due to COVID-19

A ferry from Ward's Island arrives at the Jack Layton terminal. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

As public ferry service to the Toronto Islands resumes Saturday, some island residents are concerned about being overrun by mainlanders, while others are more worried about the impact on their commute.

Since mid-March, Transport Canada's COVID-19 restrictions meant only residents were allowed aboard city ferries.

"It's been eerily quiet. Peaceful, quite nice," said Ian Rankin, who lives on Ward's Island.

Now that visitors will be allowed back to visit the popular summer destination, he's concerned about the impact of large crowds on the transportation service he depends on to get to his office downtown. 

While most of the Toronto Islands are reserved as parkland, there are between 600 and 700 people who live in more than 260 wood-frame homes on Ward's and Algonquin islands. It's a tight-knit community with quite a few retirees, but like Rankin, many people rely on the ferries to get to work year round. 

"It's the logistics of the transportation, which at best at this time of the year is very, very busy," said Rankin.

"And now, with social distancing requirements on the boats, everyone will have to be six feet apart; there's just not going to be the capacity."

Ian Rankin lives on Toronto island and works in the city. He has been called back to work and depends on the ferry service. He's worried large crowds and limited capacity could affect his commute. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Transport Canada restricts the ferries from operating at more than 50 per cent their maximum capacity.

To allow for physical distancing on the ferries and in the terminal, ferry tickets will be limited to 5,000 per day and must be purchased in advance online.

"So we're going to be lumped in together with lots of tourists," said Rankin, who also has a place to stay in the city just in case.

"Our concern is that we won't be able to access our homes in a reasonable fashion."

City staff place signage in the ferry terminal to remind passengers to physically distance. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Passengers are also required to wear non-medical masks or face coverings and signage onboard and at the terminals will help them distance while waiting in line.

"It's going to be chaos, and the ferry staff know what's going to be chaos," said Rankin. "My concern is that they don't have a plan."

But Mayor John Tory disagreed. He said the city will have extra staff to ensure guests are following the new requirements.

Reminder to stay six metres apart while waiting in line for the Toronto Island ferry. Tickets will only be available for purchase in advance online. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

"So, I hope that all of that good management, and good preparation will lead to a situation where there's lots of people who use the ferries, but it's within the limits, obviously, and also well organized, as I'm sure it will be."

Not all Islanders are worried about a big influx of visitors. Linda Rosenbaum operates Toronto Island Walking Tours, which is currently on hiatus. 

"I think we're all looking forward to having the island open," she said.

"I wouldn't say all, but I think most of us are looking forward to people coming ... We're happy to share the island with city people. We know how desperate they are to find park spaces and this is a wonderful place to be." 

Linda Rosenbaum operates Toronto Island Walking Tours. She looks forward to visitors returning to the islands. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

But she hopes everyone doesn't head straight for the beaches and bathrooms. Washrooms on the ferries will be closed, but washrooms at the terminal and in Toronto Island Park will be open

Island resident Susan Roy also runs Toronto Island Walking Tours.

"I think for the first little while it's going to be a bit crazy here," she said, adding that some are concerned about the novel coronavirus spreading to the community.

Susan Roy has been a Ward’s Island resident since the 1980s. She says despite being home to some vulnerable residents, reopening the islands to visitors should be safe if everyone follows the advice of public health officials. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

"I think many residents are concerned about the influx of people coming. We do have a number of people in the community who are vulnerable in terms of their health."

Due to the island's small population, Toronto Public Health can't confirm whether there have been any cases among island residents for privacy reasons.

But Roy says she expects everyone to follow the advice of public health officials.

"You know, come over. Be outside. Wear your mask. Wash your hands."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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