Richelle Corty of Harrisburg, Pa., quickly changed her vacation plans when she learned the ferry to Cumberland Island was going to resume services on Friday.
Corty learned about the decision by the National Park Service on Thursday and booked a reservation for the 9 a.m. ferry leaving from downtown St. Marys to the national seashore.
She said she worked on St. Simons Island during a summer she was in college and never expected she’d have an opportunity to visit Cumberland Island during her time in the region.
“I’m on a rolling furlough and it was literally the last day I could go,” she said. “I’m leaving tonight to go home.”
Adam Meeks, a crew hand aboard the ferry to the island, said he looked forward to being aboard for the first trip to the island since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the halt of passenger service to the island in mid March.
“I got the call to return to work (Thursday),” he said. “I’m bursting with energy.”
He said the word spread fast after the announcement the ferry service would resume. He said more than 35 people were booked for the 45-minute ride to the island Friday morning.
The ferry is limited to two-thirds capacity to enable passengers to social distance.
Meeks greeted passengers as they approached the dock and told them they must wear masks the entire time during the voyage. When they stepped onto the island, they would be free to take them off, but there are a new set of guidelines they and those who come afterward will be required to follow.
No overnight camping will be allowed on the island until July 6, said Jill Hamilton Anderson of the National Park Service.
Bicycle and cart rentals, the Ice House Museum and Sea Camp Ranger Station will be open with capacity limits. On the mainland, the Visitor Center and restrooms will be open, though with capacity limits.
“The park is thrilled to be able to provide greater access to Cumberland Island,” said Gary Ingram, superintendent of Cumberland Island. “COVID-19 has challenged our community, country and world in significant and life-altering ways. We hope opening the island to more visitors will help ease some of the associated stress of the current situation.”
St. Marys City Manager Robert Horton stood at the dock as the first passengers boarded the ferry. The city’s economy is dependent on tourism to the island and Horton expressed his pleasure with the resumption of ferry service.
“The National Park Service has worked very hard to get to this point,” he said. “We’re real excited about it and we want to do what we can to support it.”
Mardja Gray, owner of the Goodbread House, a bed and breakfast inn in downtown St. Marys, said she accommodated some overnight guests who quickly reserved seats on the ferry when they learned they had the opportunity to visit the island.
Gray said she lost more than 200 reservations during the pandemic.
The months of July and August are typically slow, but Gray said she’s hoping some of those cancellations will come back over the summer to visit the island
“I think it’s one of the safest places you can be,” she said. “I certainly hope some people reconsider it.”