VICTORIA -- BC Ferries is expanding some of its COVID-19 health policies, as ridership begins to rebound on the ferry service.

Starting Aug. 24, BC Ferries passengers will be required to wear face masks at all times while aboard a ferry and when inside a ferry terminal.

The ferry service notes that masks will not be required when passengers are inside of their own vehicles or if they are eating food, though people who are eating must stay at least two metres away from other passengers.

BC Ferries says that some individuals may also be exempt from wearing masks, like people who have underlying medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a face covering and children under the age of two.

“BC Ferries’ priority is the health and safety of our employees and customers,” said BC Ferries president and CEO Mark Collins in a release Friday. “We urge and expect our customers to behave responsibly when they are travelling with us.”

Collins warns that anyone who is found to be breaking BC Ferries policies could be banned from travelling with the ferry service.

The company asks that passengers continue to follow the directions of BC Ferries staff and crew during the pandemic.

“We understand that many customers are anxious about COVID-19 and our employees are doing great work to accommodate customers during this time,” said Collins.

“I want to remind customers that we do not tolerate any form of abuse, including verbal abuse, towards our employees. Failure to follow direction and abuse of any kind will result in denial of travel,” he said.

Previously, BC Ferries passengers were only required to wear a face covering when in a situation where it was difficult to maintain physical distancing.

Bleak first quarter results

The new mask policy comes as BC Ferries also reported a significant net loss for the first quarter of 2020.

The ferry operator says that it saw net losses of $62 million during the three months that ended on June 30, a massive decline from the $12.2 million net earnings that were recorded over the same period last year.

BC Ferries says the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a serious blow to the company’s revenue, due to a reduction in ridership and the number of sailings available.

During the quarter, revenue for BC Ferries was at $137.4 million, down $109 million from last year.

To help offset the losses this year, BC Ferries deferred several capital projects, reduced sailings to match the drop in traffic and reduced discretionary spending.

Overall operating expenses were reduced by $36.7 million compared to the same time last year.

“We made prudent decisions to remove costs for the health of the ferry system,” said BC Ferries president and CEO Mark Collins in a release Thursday.

“This is decisive action to safeguard the coastal ferry service for the long term, while continuing to provide essential services to customers and communities,” he said.

At its lowest point, BC Ferries passenger traffic dipped to just 20 to 25 per cent of normal ridership levels. After the B.C. government eased traffic restrictions near the end of June, ferry traffic has returned to roughly 65 per cent of normal levels.

During the first quarter of BC Ferries’ fiscal year, roughly 2.2 million passengers boarded a ferry, a whopping 61.5 per cent decrease from the same time last year. Similarly, 1.3 million vehicles boarded a ferry, a decrease of 46.7 per cent from 2019.

BC Ferries says that as ridership increase, it will continue to restore sailings to its routes

“We have been bringing back service capacity to coastal communities ahead of gradually increasing demand,” said Collins.

Later this year, BC Ferries is set to receive bailout funding from the provincial and federal governments.

A combined total of $1.08 billion has been promised by both levels of government to support transit services in B.C. The exact amount of funding that will go towards BC Ferries from this total has not been released yet.

“While COVID-19 continues to have a profound impact on our business, I want to express my deep appreciation to our frontline staff who came to work every day in the depths of the pandemic to provide lifeline service to coastal communities,” said Collins.

“I also want to thank our customers for their patience as we all work towards a new normal,” he said.