VICTORIA -- British Columbia's provincial ferry operator is suspending service along some major routes and cutting sailings on others as ridership has plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're reducing our capacity by about 50 per cent," BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins told CTV News on Friday.

The ferry operator says all sailings on the Nanaimo – Horseshoe Bay route and the Mill Bay – Brentwood Bay route are cancelled for 60 days starting Saturday, April 4.

At the same time, sailings on the Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay – Duke Point route will be reduced from eight roundtrips per day to four.

Service on the Langdale – Horseshoe Bay route will be reduced to six roundtrips a day from the present eight.

Service levels on all these routes will be re-evaluated after the 60 day-period, according to BC Ferries.

"Traffic has collapsed essentially on the ferry system, as it should as we combat this pandemic," Collins said. "Essentially the fare box is empty and our workers are being exposed."

For northern and mid-coast communities, sailings will continue to operate at the current off-peak service levels, the ferry operator says.

The summer direct service from Bella Coola to Port Hardy will not be introduced at this time.

The ferry service says four cargo-only roundtrips will be added on the Tsawwassen - Duke Point route to ensure essential goods are transported to and from Vancouver Island.

BC Ferries says further changes will be coming to the Tsawwassen – Southern Gulf Islands and Swartz Bay – Southern Gulf Islands service route. Details are currently being finalized and will be announced soon.

"Through this challenging time, our employees have demonstrated courage and determination to support coastal ferry service,” said Collins in a statement Friday.

"Unfortunately, these service level reductions will result in temporary layoffs for hundreds of dedicated and loyal employees. Our goal is to keep the temporary layoffs to as short as possible. We need all these skilled people back as soon as possible to help restore ferry services when traffic returns."

Collins said staff seniority and location were the biggest factors in deciding who would be laid off.

Last week the ferry service asked travellers to avoid all non-essential travel on its routes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

BC Ferries has already cancelled several sailings, implemented higher cleaning standards, closed food and retail services, restricted cash payments, and asked vehicle passengers to remain in their cars and trucks to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus to other passengers.