As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, masks or face coverings are now required in most public places indoors and out on the Vineyard, including grocery stores, construction sites, on public buses, in post offices.

But there is one place where they are conspicuously not required: the Steamship Authority.

Signs abound, but face coverings not required on SSA ferries. — Mark Alan Lovewell

There has been no discussion about face coverings at the last two meetings of the boat line board of governors, held last week and yesterday.

But SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said this week the boat line can’t require face coverings.

“The Steamship Authority is a public agency, so we can’t decide ourselves to deny access to the boats based on any criteria,” Mr. Driscoll told the Gazette by phone. “Absent an order from the governor requiring masks to be worn in public, or an order from the Coast Guard requiring masks for passengers, we can’t force passengers to do so.”

With the boat line already reporting an increase in ferry traffic as the ramp up to summer approaches, and the large, privately-owned Hy-Line ferry announcing this week that it would require passengers to wear masks, questions began to surface about the SSA

Mr. Driscoll said Hy-Line — which runs passenger service, both high speed and traditional, to both Islands — can require face coverings because it’s a private company.

On Tuesday, hospital president and chief executive officer Denise Schepici expressed outrage after she saw a photograph on the Gazette website of tightly-packed passengers disembarking from an early-morning ferry, only about half of them wearing masks.

“I was shocked and dismayed when I saw the photo on the front page of the Gazette of workers without masks on,” Ms. Schepici said. “We are worried about them.”

Monday marked the first day of new guidelines that relaxed the Island’s strict construction and landscaping bans, allowing one and two-man crews to return to work. At a meeting Tuesday, general manager Robert Davis there had been a marked increase in traffic to the Vineyard Monday.

Mr. Driscoll said while the boat line legally can’t require people to wear masks, it had been adhering closely to state guidelines, with ample messaging to promote face coverings, social distancing and the risks of travel.

“We have signs up copiously at the terminals and on the vessels. We are making announcements to that effect when the boats get going. We are doing everything we can to remind them of the precautions,” Mr. Driscoll said. “But there is an element of personal responsibility here.”

Mr. Driscoll also said the SSA does not require its employees to wear masks.

“We currently do not,” he said, “although we have been in the process of examining our policies for several weeks now and may have new guidance soon.”

As for passengers being bunched together while disembarking from vessels, Mr. Driscoll said the logistics of getting people off the boat remained difficult, especially as traffic increased. He said the boatline was in discussions about addressing the issue of maintaining social distancing while passengers disembark.

“The enforcement of it is a little bit tricky considering the logistics of the vessel and how we load and unload people,” he said. “Until recently, there haven’t been so many people on the boat that it hasn’t been particularly a problem. We’ve asked them to not bunch up.”