MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. — Lake Michigan’s two car and passenger ferries that connect Michigan to Wisconsin are setting course to begin normal season in May.
The Milwaukee-based Lake Express begins daily ferry service May 7. The Lake Express offers passengers a 2.5 hour trip between the Muskegon terminal in the Lakeside neighborhood and downtown Milwaukee.
"Every opening day is very special," said Aaron Schultz, Senior Vice President at Lake Express.
Right now the high speed ferry is at its winter lay up berth located deep in Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley.
"We're just in the final preparations to come out of the river," said Schultz.
The high-speed ferry’s 2020 season was delayed until early June due to COVID-19. The ship is being prepared for a full 2021 season running from May 7 to Oct. 25. During the summer season from June 17 through Sept. 6, the Lake Express makes three round trip crossings. During the early and late season two round trips are offered. Pre-season booking are tracking similar to 2019, which was a record year for the Lake Express.
"Very optimistic," said Schultz. "Our early numbers are tracking very closely to 2019 numbers, pre-pandemic numbers."
The Lake Express continues to monitor COVID-19 and will have practices in place to reduce the risk of transmission. Passengers are asked to complete a self-assessment and not travel if they’ve been exposed to anyone who tested positive for COVID in the past 14 days. Temperature screenings will be done before passengers board the ship. Once onboard, passengers will be required to wear face masks and social distance. Capacity on the ship will also be reduced to 50 percent to facilitate physical distancing.
"That will help us maintain distancing, a little bit of our seating will be cordoned off just to again encourage that," said Schultz.
Passengers may remove masks while on the ship’s sun deck as long as they are abiding by physical distance requirements. And to begin the 2021 season the Lake Express is accepting only cashless transactions from credit cards, debit cards and gift cards.
The Lake Express began service in 2004.
In Ludington the new owners of the S.S. Badger say very little will change as a result of the change in ownership.
Interlake Holding Company announced in Dec. 2020 the purchase of Pere Marquette Shipping Company’s assets including the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Company.
Interlake Holdings, based in the Cleveland area, operates a fleet of vessels on the Great Lakes and high-speed passenger ferries operating in New York's harbor and various locations on the east coast including New Bedford, Mass.
Interlake Holdings president Mark W. Barker said in a release that his company is “fully committed to continuing its operation as the largest cross-lake passenger service on the Great Lake, a key part of US10 highway and a vital link across Lake Michigan.”
The S.S. Badger has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
The 2021 season begins with one round trip across Lake Michigan daily from May 20 to Oct. 10.
"We've announced that and we're excited," said Barker. "We're building the team and there's a few more job openings."
The Badger departs Ludington at 9 a.m. and arrives in Manitowoc, Wis., at noon after the four-hour trip. The return trip to Ludington leaves Manitowoc at 2 p.m. and arrives at the Ludington dock at 7 p.m.
Ticket sales for 2021 crossings are underway. Barker says sales are strong and robust.
"That's been positive," said Barker. "Just talk to people in general they're ready, as you get vaccinated people are ready to go."
Badger passengers are required to take wear a face mask while onboard, and practice social distancing between people from different traveling groups. The Badger will have hand sanitizers available, and additional outside seating will be offered.
Paperless transactions for ticketing and on-board purchases is preferred. Buffet meal service in the Upper Deck Café will be closed until COVID-19 restrictions are modified.
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