Officials happy with traffic numbers on Chi-Cheemaun this season, even with pandemic

OWEN SOUND – While it was certainly a sailing season unlike any other in its history, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) is happy with its traffic numbers comparatively, this year.

“Yes, we are happy with the season overall,” stated Susan Schrempf, president and CEO of OSTC, this past Monday. “When we made the decision to modify the sailing operations due to COVID-19 we were not optimistic about traffic numbers this year.” She noted that OSTC had estimated realistically that they would have 30 percent of last year’s traffic, and optimistically 50 percent. 

In terms of vehicle traffic this season, “we had a total of 46,078 vehicles, which is 57 percent of last year’s traffic; and for passengers we had a total of 103,698, which is 51 percent of last year’s numbers,” said Ms. Schrempf.

The Chi-Cheemaun which sails between Tobermory and South Baymouth, “only completed a total of 714 sailings this year, which is 69 percent of the sailings we had last year,” continued Ms. Schrempf. 

Due to COVID-19 the Chi-Cheemaun did not operate at all in May of this year and didn’t sail on the last day of the season, this past Sunday, October 18, because of weather conditions. “So we were down 31 days (in sailing) with not operating in May and losing the last day of the season,” said Ms. Schrempf. 

Ms. Schrempf explained that although the season started out slowly, “traffic picked up rapidly in July and August. And we had traffic numbers which were 93 percent of traffic compared to last year’s September traffic. So the numbers did build as the season went on,” she said, noting that for October the ship traffic totaled 76 percent of traffic in comparison to last year’s traffic figures.

“Optimistically we had hoped to have 50 percent of last year’s traffic numbers, and realistically when we first estimated numbers, we felt we would see traffic numbers that would represent 30 percent of our numbers compared to last year,” said Ms. Schrempf.

“We are happy with our numbers but moreso happy with our (on-board) crew and shore staff, who had to do the screening of passengers (for the pandemic) and for example had to explain why the stringent rules were in place and why passengers needed to behave in the manner we had outlined with the restrictions we had in place due to the pandemic,” continued Ms. Schrempf. Stringent regulations in place resulted in zero COVID-19 infections being reported and zero known COVID-19 infections confirmed.

As part of the guidelines, “we went to a mandatory face mask policy for all passengers from day one of our operations this year,” said Ms. Schrempf. She said passengers were generally understanding and followed rules to wear face masks.

“People were very appreciative of the steps we took to make sure all passengers and crew on board were safe. We received messages from several passengers who were very happy and supportive of the way crew handled everything to maintain safety, and that we took the measures we did to make the ship safe so that people could actually travel,” said Ms. Schrempf.

“Yes, we spent all this year crystal balling everything, and we took the steps to put in place safety measures so everyone would be safe; the provincial regulations followed after that,” pointed out Ms. Schrempf. “We would rather take measures to be too safe than not safe enough.”

For the 2021 sailing season Ms. Schrempf said, “unless there is a vaccine widely implemented (for COVID-19) we will still have the mitigation strategies in place again next year.” 

There will be work undertaken on the ship this off-season, said Ms. Schrempf. “We are continuing our interior renovations with wall paneling being replaced in stairwells, and we will be finishing the crew quarters this winter. And the ship will be going up for her dry docking in the fall of next year.”