HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says the 2020 sailing season for the Yarmouth ferry will be cancelled because of concerns over the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

"We do not have at that entry point the type of screening that would be required," McNeil said Friday during a news conference.

"This is disappointing," McNeil said. "The ferry was ready to sail out of Bar Harbour, but now COVID continues to be a problem in the U.S. and the Canadian-U.S. border remains closed. We just don't think it's safe for the ferry service"

Bay Ferries Limited said in a news release that the decision was made after consultations with the province and taking into consideration the uncertainty over whether the Canada-U.S. border will be reopened. It is closed until late July, but that could be extended.

"This is a difficult, but also now an obvious, decision," said Mark MacDonald, the chairman and CEO of Bay Ferries Limited said in the release. "International non-essential travel worldwide has essentially come to a standstill. It is not clear when U.S. operations would be permitted to occur, what opportunity would exist for proper marketing of the service, and what short term customer demand would be. In the circumstances, we are focused on reduction of cost."

For McNeil, the issue was one of safety and he said even though the province will have some "contractual obligations" to pay Bay Ferries, he said it didn't weigh on the decision at all.

The problem-plagued ferry cost provincial taxpayers an extra $4 million as it also sat idle for the entire 2019 sailing season.

Zach Churchill, the Liberal member of the legislature who represents the Yarmouth area, has said the additional costs are associated with tying up the ferry and upgrading the U.S. terminal.

In total, the province spent $17.8 million on the idled service last year.

The season was scrapped last year when Bay Ferries was unable to complete construction work at the terminal to meet U.S. Customs and Border Protection specifications. The work was necessary after the company moved its U.S entry point from Portland, Maine, where the ferry had operated for five years.

In 2018, work at the terminal forced Bay Ferries to cancel and delay bookings several times before finally suspending them in July.

Bay Ferries' original plan for 2020 was to offer crossings six days a week -- every day but Wednesdays -- until the season ended on Oct. 13.

The company operates The Cat, a high-speed catamaran ferry that was to sail between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, where the company had spent more than $8 million renovating the ferry terminal.

The ferry is expected to remain at its off-season port in Charleston, S.C.

Easing of restrictions, some immediate and some next week

In other news, the province announced a loosening of restrictions, including allowing restaurant to completely open.

"Reopening our economy and society is important but it also increases risk, so it is paramount that we continue our public health measures to minimize a second wave of COVID-19," said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health. "That includes physical distancing as much as possible, good hand hygiene, cough etiquette, staying home if you're sick and wearing a non-medical mask when you're in public places like the grocery store where physical distancing is difficult."

The following restrictions are being eased, effectively immediately, the province said in a news release:

  • restaurants and licensed liquor establishments can operate at 100 per cent capacity and serve patrons until midnight with appropriate distancing between tables. Patrons must leave by 1 a.m.
  • private campgrounds can operate at 100 per cent capacity.
  • public pools can reopen with physical distancing for lane swimming and aquafit classes, and one or more groups of 10 for other activities based on pool size. They must follow the Nova Scotia Lifesaving Society plan for change rooms and washrooms. It will take municipalities and other public pools time to prepare for reopening.
  • people living in homes funded by disability support programs can resume going out into their communities as soon as arrangements are able to be made.

The province also announced that gathering limits will be increased starting next Friday. They include:

"If a recognized business or organization is planning an event outdoors, 250 people can attend with physical distancing rules in place," the province said in a news release. "For an indoor event, the limit is 50 per cent capacity to a maximum of 200, again with physical distancing."

If a gathering is not run by a recognized business or organization, such as a family event in the backyard, it is still subject to the 50-person maximum limit with physical distancing unless you're in your close social group of 10, the province says.

The expanded gathering limits apply to social events, faith gatherings, weddings, funerals and other cultural events, and arts and culture events like theatre performances, dance recitals, festivals, and concerts.

Guidelines for these types of events are available on the province's website.

No new cases, no active cases

The province also said there are no new cases of COVID-19 to report and there continues to be no confirmed active cases.

Nova Scotia has had 1,061 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 63 people have died from the virus.

Testing numbers are updated daily and posted here.

With files from The Canadian Press.