Authorities take COVID action against tour operators in NYC, Boston

Provincetown II


Excursion boat companies in New York City and Boston were the targets of enforcement action by authorities this summer for violations of COVID-19 regulations.

On Aug. 1, the captain and owners of Liberty Belle were arrested in New York for defying the state’s coronavirus social-distancing mandate on a crowded cruise.

When the four-deck riverboat returned to Pier 36 in Lower Manhattan at about 2350, officers from the New York City Sheriff’s Department broke up the 1920s theme party. They arrested Ronny Vargas and Alex Suazo, the vessel owners, and arrested and issued a summons to Capt. Joseph Spadaro, who was allowed to return the vessel to its mooring at Atlantic Basin in Red Hook.

Liberty Belle’s cruise began at 2030 with more than 170 passengers, many of whom posted pictures and videos on social media. A civic group, the Resident Association of The Two Bridges Waterfront Tower, tweeted, “So a packed Liberty Belle party boat just departed from Pier 36 on the (Lower East Side) waterfront with no apparent social distancing or mask requirement. Who has jurisdiction over these floating nightclubs?”

The tweet included photos of partygoers crowded together without masks. Other social media posts showed passengers dancing close together without masks despite signs on the boat warning people to stay 6 feet apart.

The sheriff’s department said it sent officers to the pier after being contacted by the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. The officers also found liquor had been served on board despite the boat not having a liquor license, officials said.

Empire Cruises, Liberty Belle’s operator, did not respond to a request for comment, and city authorities could not provide updates on disciplinary action against the company.

In Boston, city and state officials issued a cease-and-desist order to an excursion company on July 27 after a photo of a crowded Boston Harbor tour boat generated outrage on social media.

The order issued to Bay State Cruise Company by the Boston Public Health Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards stated that the number of passengers on Provincetown II violated guidelines in the state’s COVID-19 economic re-
opening plan.

An image on social media showed Provincetown II preparing to depart for a 2 1/2-hour cruise on the night of July 25 with most of the guests clustered on the open-air top deck.    

While Bay State insisted that all guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus were followed, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a prepared statement that the gathering represented “a serious threat to public health.” 

Michael Glasfeld, a company spokesman, told local media that the vessel sailed at 33 percent capacity, within the company’s COVID-19 limit of 44 percent. He said that allowed for 28 square feet per passenger, enough room for 6 feet of social distancing.

But the cease-and-desist order stated that the current phase of the economic reopening plan prohibited summer music cruises, charters with dancing, and activities at bars, dance clubs and nightclubs that offered entertainment, beverages or dancing without providing seated food service prepared on site and under retail food permits.

Julie Pagano, Bay State’s general manager, said in an email on Sept. 23 that “what was for us then is now behind us, as we continue to navigate our small business through this unprecedented time.” She declined further comment.

Bill Bleyer

By Professional Mariner Staff