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KFL&A Public Health asking province to ease tour boat capacity limits

The Island Queen and Island Belle parked at the tour operator’s wharf in downtown Kingston. Kingstonist file photo.

Kingston & the Islands Boatlines Ltd (KIBL) also known as Kingston Destination Group, has requested the support of Kingston Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health in an appeal to the Provincial government. They’re asking Ontario to loosen the COVID-19 capacity restrictions on their fleet of tour boats.

Speaking at the KFL&A Public Health Board meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, KIBL General Manager Hugh Mackenzie explained that if tour boats were held to the same capacity restrictions as restaurants, they’d be allowed to carry more passengers and stand a better chance of weathering the pandemic.

Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises operates three hospitality day cruise vessels:

  • The Island Queen III, which has two interior decks plus an open top deck, and a normal capacity of 308 passengers and crew
  • The Island Belle, with one interior deck, one open deck, and a normal capacity of 164
  • The Island Star (Le Bateau Mouche II), a glass-topped dining vessel with full galley, and a normal capacity of 220.

The city’s largest tour operator, Kingston Destination Group also has five, 34-passenger trolleys through the Kingston Trolley Tours branch of their business.

Passenger capacity slashed for 2020 operating season

Like many operators in the city’s vital tourism sector, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenge for KIBL. Both the legal restrictions and the public’s sense of apprehension around the COVID-19 pandemic have gutted tourism traffic.

“COVID-19’s impact on tourism and hospitality has been universal. Very few industries have suffered as much,” Mackenzie explained to the board.

Under provincial regulation, KIBL was not permitted to operate their boat tours until Wednesday, Jul. 1, 2020 this year, after which point they were subject to government emergency regulations and Public Health authorities.

“We anticipated operations would commence on July 1st with capacities based upon ‘Physical Distancing’ of two metres, and calculated our capacities as 121 for the Island Queen, 50 for the Island Belle and 80 for the Island Star,” Mackenzie said.

On Friday, June 12, 2020, the Ontario government moved Kingston into Stage 2 of provincial reopening. Boat and trolley tours were allowed to proceed with up to to 10 passengers, including guides.

On Friday, Jul 17, 2020, Kingston entered Stage 3. The permitted passenger capacity increased to 50 per vessel, still well below the threshold that KIBL had anticipated being able to safely implement tours while still observing two metres of physical distancing between passengers.

Mackenzie said the restrictions imposed on the boat line were arbitrary.

“It didn’t matter if a vessel was Transport Canada certified for 150 or 850 passengers, it was restricted to 50 if using enclosed decks,” he said.

He explained that KIBL operations proceeded under comprehensive ‘Guest First, Safety Always’ COVID Operating Plans, which included passenger screening, gathering contact details, masks, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and other safety precautions detailed in an internal 23-page plan, shared with KFL&A Public Health.

“Given the uncertainty for tourism and capacity restrictions we only operated the Island Queen and at first two, then three trolleys,” he said. Trolley operations were reduced to City Tours. The Hop-On Hop-Off (HOHO) schedule was cancelled, with most of the the major tourism sites in the city closed.

“Without the HOHO program and many attractions shuttered nor the prospect for a critical mass of visitors, the K-Pass was not feasible in 2020,” Mackenzie said.

Boat tour revenues down 88 per cent

Mackenzie said that by the end of October 2020, KIBL’s boat operation revenue was down by 88 per cent, to its lowest level in three decades. Employment was halved, with a maximum payroll of 65 employees.

“KIBL took advantage of every potential subsidy and support programs offered by various levels of governments, financial institutions, economic agencies and suppliers to help mitigate the impacts,” he said. “More than any other constraint, not being able to operate at comparable capacity to restaurants under 364/20, which were based on physical distancing, was responsible for our losses.”

Mackenzie presented his plan to the KFL&A Public Health Board for the 2021 season, which is scheduled to begin on Saturday, May 8, 2020. Notably, provincial and federal governments have estimated that many Canadians at high-risk of contracted COVID-19 could be vaccinated by the end of March, 2021.

The deck layouts KIBL prepared include plans for physical distancing, plexiglass dividers and traffic flows consistent with other food and drink parameters from the province, he said. They’re hoping to have up to 145 passengers on the Island Queen, 75 on the Island Belle, and 80 on the Island Star.

“With these parameters, the company is projected to be profitable and in a position to invest in the anticipated three to five year recovery as the lead destination driver for Kingston,” he said.

The board agreed unanimously to proceed with writing to the provincial government on behalf of the local tourism company, requesting permission for KIBL to operate under revised restrictions in consultation with Public Health.

“I think the rules are unfair and unjust,” Kingston’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore said. He noted that Public Health could work cooperatively with KIBL to ensure customers and clients are safe, and best practices applied.

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Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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