ROTHENBURGER – Following the herd and riding COVID-free on BC Ferries

Riding on the Coastal Renaissance. (Image: Mel Rothenburger)

AS WE SPEAK, I’m on Deck 4 of the MV Coastal Renaissance between Vancouver Island and the Mainland, her 21,000-horsepower diesel engines powering us across the strait at 23 knots. Having scored a space on the open deck, we’re allowed to stay in the vehicle with the family pooch.

Vehicles on all sides of us contain folks reading or napping as the ship rumbles along, an early morning rain pelting down on the ocean waves outside the massive port holes.

This is the new double standard on BC Ferries. There’s a lot of grumbling these days about Transport Canada’s decision not to let people stay in their cars on the lower decks. It’s a safety thing.

Islanders speak or write as though passengers are being forced onto crowded passenger decks like refugees in a tramp steamer, trading COVID-19 all the way to the terminal. How is that safer than being allowed to stay in their vehicles below decks, they demand to know.

But here on Deck 4, we’re actually encouraged to stay put rather than vacate our vehicle. That’s to help make things less crowded upstairs on the passenger deck.

So, depending on where you happen to be on the ship, you’re either prohibited from doing or encouraged to do certain things.

Based on this particular trip, it’s a lot of to-do about nothing. The Coastal Renaissance can carry 310 cars and 1,600 passengers and crew. Today it’s 49 per cent full. A stroll through the passenger deck is a little like touring the hotel in The Shining. Some passenger seating areas are scarcely inhabited, others are completely empty. I expect a kid on a tricycle to come around a corner at any second.

Even the Internet stations aren’t seeing a lot of activity. The most action is in the “Western inspired” gift shop and the cafeteria but neither is exactly doing a roaring business.

Having boned up on BC Ferries’ COVID-19 protocols, and with the fear of God within, suitably masked, I gingerly make my way around ready to flee the vicinity should I encounter another living thing.

There’s no need. I seldom pass another passenger, and when I do am pleased to see they’re masked.

This adherence to rules isn’t typical of what we’ve encountered on this venture out into the world beyond the Loops. Everybody talks a good COVID-19 game but, mostly, nobody bothers much with it in practice. It must drive Dr. Bonnie Henry nuts.

On the road trip over the Coquihalla, we make a pit stop at the summit and note that few are wearing masks. In the washroom, I encounter a man getting rid of his coffee at the urinals while his young son waits. When the father finishes up he leaves without washing his hands even though the soap dispensers are full — in normal times, a rarity in B.C.’s rest stops.

During a few days on the island, we have dinner at a newly opened and highly popular restaurant, where patrons are crammed in to the rafters, separated by plexiglass and attended to by servers in face masks. But there are no empty tables or booths to make you feel comfortable distance-wise, and the young crowd that frequents this very noisy eatery doesn’t bother with those silly life-saving masks entering or leaving.

I find myself having to stop at a roadside liquor store one morning — not to stock up but to ask directions. The maskless but helpful young clerk doesn’t recognize the street name but whips out her phone and quickly Google maps it, then swings around from behind the counter and sidles up close, leaning in with her phone so I can see the map.

The exception to this apparent mutual self-confidence in everyone’s immunity is at our hotel. There, they take it seriously. When they say a mask must be worn at all times in the lobby and hallways, they mean it, and there’s a pleasant security guard who reminds you if you forget.

When signing the register, there’s one pen holder for sanitized pens and another for used pens. There’s plexiglass separating customers from check-in clerks.

And the amazing thing is, everybody sticks to the rules. People passing each other in the hallways all wear their masks and politely squeeze close to the walls as they go by.

They do what they should be doing because the hotel is conscientious about it. It’s in their self-interest, of course. Who wants their hotel to be in the news as the centre of the latest COVID-19 outbreak?

But up the street at the trendy new restaurant, they must be shedding the virus like some people shed jobs or spouses.

Which is the point I’m trying to make. We follow the rules and keep each other safe if we believe those who set them are serious about it. As soon as we see they aren’t serious, we take liberties.

More than that, if all around us are doing something, we follow along. If we’re in a group that observes COVID-19 protocols, we do, too. If they don’t, we’re embarrassed about standing out, and follow the herd.

So, in small stores, customers expect to have to wear masks and stay away from others. In grocery stores, where the rules aren’t enforced, most people don’t bother.

Meanwhile, on the Coastal Renaissance, commuters enjoy a spacious, worry free ride. And I’m back in our car on Deck 4, thinking those who complain about the Transport Canada decision haven’t actually been on a ferry recently.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and a retired newspaper editor. He is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at

About Mel Rothenburger (9036 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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